Gonzaga has become a popular destination for transfers and international players, as demonstrated by former Kentucky Wildcat Kyle Wiltjer and Lithuanian Domantas Sabonis fueling last year’s run to the Sweet 16.
Those two are gone — Sabonis became the progam’s sixth first-round draft pick since 2002 — but the Zags remain stocked with quality transfers and imports.
Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington), Johnathan Williams (Missouri) and Cal graduate transfer Jordan Mathews are expected to make up three-fifths of the starting lineup, joining Polish center Przemek Karnowski and sophomore point guard Josh Perkins.
Williams-Goss and Williams redshirted under NCAA transfer rules last season, but they were able to practice with the team. Gonzaga hopes Mathews can make an impact similar to former USC grad transfer Byron Wesley, an important component on the Zags’ 35-win team in 2015.
“The challenge for us, just like we did with Wesley, is to incorporate Jordan into the mix as soon as possible,” coach Mark Few says.
All West Coast Conference predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2016-17 Preview Magazine, available in our online store and on newsstands everywhere.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Mark Few
2015-16 RECORD (WCC): 25–8 (15–3)
2015-16 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Syracuse 63–60 in Sweet 16
2016-17 PREDICTION: First in West Coast Conference
G Kyle Dranginis (6.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 3.1 apg)
G Eric McClellan (10.7 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 2.0 apg)
F Domantas Sabonis (17.6 ppg, 11.8 rpg)
F Kyle Wiltjer (20.4 ppg, 6.3 rpg)
The Zags can’t replace Wiltjer’s scoring knack or Sabonis’ relentless board work, so they expect their inside game to take a step backward.
The big question is Karnowski’s status as he returns from a Dec. 31 back surgery that limited him to five games last season. When healthy, the 7'1" center is a difference maker at both ends of the floor. He’s an effective scorer in the lane and draws double teams that allow him to showcase his passing ability. He has 115 career blocked shots and has learned how to patrol the paint while rarely getting into foul trouble.
Karnowski has played in 113 games at Gonzaga, by far the most on the team. His court presence and experience would be a huge asset on a squad with numerous first-year Zags.
Williams, who led Missouri in scoring (11.9 ppg) and rebounding (7.1 rpg) in 2015, has had roughly 18 months to work on his game. He made 22 3-pointers as a sophomore and swatted 76 shots in two seasons. “He moves really well, rebounds very well,” Few says. “He’s bouncy and aggressive enough to give you some rim protection, and he’s a capable scorer.”
McDonald’s All-American Zach Collins, a versatile scorer, will push for extended playing time. Other options include junior center Ryan Edwards, Rice transfer Jeremy Jones (who could see minutes at guard or forward) and true freshmen Jacob Larsen (Denmark), Killian Tillie (France) and Rui Hachimura (Japan).
Mathews, Williams-Goss and talented freshman Zach Norvell join returners Perkins and Silas Melson to give Gonzaga a promising group of guards. Williams-Goss was second-team All-Pac-12 in 2015 after averaging 15.6 points, 5.9 assists and 4.7 rebounds. Perkins improved as his freshman season progressed. He averaged 10.9 points in conference, and his 46.3-percent accuracy on 3-pointers (in league games) ranked second in the WCC. “They both can handle playmaking and ball-handling aspects of true point guard play but both are also very capable scorers,” says Few, no stranger to utilizing two point guards simultaneously.
Mathews, who averaged 13.5 points last season, is a career 41.7 percent shooter beyond the arc. Melson is a strong defender who contributed offensively during Gonzaga’s late-season surge.
“There’s a lot of experience (in the backcourt), and they’re all really different players,” Few says. “They bring different strengths, and their skills complement each other well.”
Nigel Williams-Goss led the Pac-12 in minutes played per game (36.8) in 2015. Jordan Mathews logged 2,709 minutes in three seasons at Cal, more than anyone on Gonzaga’s roster. Johnathan Williams impressed coaches with his work ethic and improvement during his redshirt season. Of the five incoming freshmen, the two Zachs (Collins and Norvell) figure to have an immediate impact.
Gonzaga is well positioned, particularly if Karnowski is the Karnowski of the 2013-14 and ’14-15 seasons, to add to some impressive numbers (15 of the last 16 WCC titles, 18 straight NCAA Tournaments). The Zags might need some time to blend with the arrival of four transfers and Karnowski’s return from back surgery, but the roster is packed with talent. The Zags are capable of reaching the Sweet 16 for the third straight season, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if they advanced deeper than that.