Gonzaga long ago established itself on as a legitimate player on the national scene, but the Zags silenced any lingering doubters with their first Final Four appearance last season. They nearly won it all, leading by two with less than two minutes remaining before falling to North Carolina in the title game.
That team is long gone as four members of the eight-man rotation — some would argue four of the top five — moved on via graduation or the NBA Draft. Coach Mark Few’s task is putting together a suitable encore with several new band members.
“It’s going to be a lot different team that Gonzaga hasn’t seen before,” junior point guard Josh Perkins says. “But we still have a lot of good pieces, pieces that are ready to go.”
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Mark Few
2016-17 RECORD (WCC): 37–2 (17–1)
2016-17 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to North Carolina 71–65 in the Finals
F Zach Collins (10.0 ppg, 5.9 rpg)
C Przemek Karnowski (12.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg)
G Jordan Mathews (10.6 ppg)
G Nigel Williams-Goss (16.8 ppg, 4.7 apg)
Few teams could match Gonzaga’s frontcourt last season, led by man-mountain Przemek Karnowski and eventual lottery pick Zach Collins. The 7-footers are gone, but the Zags still possess size and versatility on the interior. Johnathan Williams, who flirted with entering the draft before returning for his senior season, was pivotal in GU’s 37-win season. The 6'9" transfer from Missouri uses his athleticism and an occasional 3-pointer to create mismatches at the offensive end, whether he remains at power forward or moves to center. Defensively, Williams can check wings or bigs. He is expected to take on more of the scoring load.
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The same could be said of 6'10" sophomore Killian Tillie. The French native, called a “problem solver” by Few, has a high basketball IQ and nose for the ball. He didn’t score much last season but appears capable of boosting production after a strong effort at the FIBA U19 World Cup in July.
Rui Hachimura, who had a breakout performance for Japan at the U19 World Cup, can score in transition, in the lane or beyond the arc. The 6'8" sophomore should see plenty of time at both forward spots after averaging just 4.6 minutes last season.
Redshirt freshman Jacob Larsen, a 6'11" center from Denmark who sat out last season with a torn ACL, should step into the rotation.
Perkins and senior Silas Melson provide experience. Perkins, a fixture in the starting lineup the last two years, will take over full-time point guard duties after sharing responsibilities with Nigel Williams-Goss. Melson could assume a starting role after primarily coming off the bench the past three seasons. The duo combined for 106 3-pointers and 15.3 points per game last season.
Redshirt freshman Zach Norvell could provide scoring punch from the wing. Junior Jeremy Jones and three freshmen — Jesse Wade, Corey Kispert and Joel Ayayi — will compete for minutes on the perimeter. Wade signed with Gonzaga in 2015 before serving a two-year LDS Church mission.
Gonzaga lacks experience, but talent should not be an issue. Norvell, Perkins and Williams were top-125 recruits. Tillie and Hachimura are talented, and Larsen is an intriguing prospect. The Zags won’t be as tall as last year’s team, but Few has options to play big, with Hachimura at the 3, or small with a three-guard alignment.
Mainstays such as Perkins, Melson, Williams and Tillie need to provide leadership and consistency. Several players among Hachimura, Norvell, Larsen, Jones and the incoming freshmen will be asked to fill primary roles.
The Zags rate as slight favorites over Saint Mary’s in the WCC. They could be a tough out in March if Few and his staff successfully blend the returning players with the new faces.