After the shortest offseason in program history (isn’t playing in the national championship great?), Gonzaga’s first official game of the season against Texas Southern is only three weeks away (11/10)!
There is a fair level of uncertainty swirling around the roster after the mass exodus of players from last season’s team, but what isn’t uncertain is that the Zags will have another strong non-conference schedule with several opportunities for résumé-building wins.
The season will kick off with a trio of games Gonzaga should handle without too much trouble (no offense to Texas Southern, Howard, and Utah State—the most tricky of the three). Those first two weeks of the schedule should allow Mark Few and the coaching staff to tinker with some rotations and schemes in-game as they integrate role players and redshirts from last year’s roster along with new faces in Corey Kispert, Jesse Wade, Joel Ayayi, and walk-on Alex Martin.
Gonzaga won’t have too much time to lock in a rotation, however, before heading down to Portland for a long anticipated tournament that will have the nation’s attention.
The big ticket item of Gonzaga’s non-conference schedule is almost always whichever holiday tournament it finds itself in. But this year is no ordinary year. We have been talking about PK80 around this website for a long time, and with good reason, as the 16-team super tournament put together as an Ode to Phil Knight features 3 of last season’s 4 Final Four teams (hey, that includes us), 23 combined national championships, and DePaul.
Gonzaga will open the tournament with a delicious match-up against Ohio State and its new coach Chris Holtmann (formerly of Butler). The Buckeyes are coming off a disappointing 17-15 season (thus the new coach), but will field Jae’Sean Tate and freshman Kyle Young who was a consensus Top 100 recruit. The Buckeyes are a name brand and will be well-coached, however I don’t suspect they’ll provide a big RPI bounce for the Zags as the program is transitioning and I’m expecting a down year for the Big 10 overall. Still, this is much better than drawing Portland State (no offense).
Assuming Gonzaga gets by Ohio State, the winner of Florida/Stanford awaits (or the loser if we take the L against OSU). Mike White’s Gators should win that matchup, which would mean we get to run back last year’s gritty game at the AdvoCare Invitational. Center John Egbunu made his presence felt last year, but he’s not expected back from his ACL tear until January. Devin Robinson left early for the NBA, but Kevaughn Allen (scored 35 points against Wisconsin in the Sweet 16) is back and will lead a strong squad that added a trio of ESPN 100 recruits in the Class of 2017 (though forward Isaiah Stokes is also expected to be out until January with a knee injury). Gonzaga will have its hands full with the Gators, but either way this is a good early season test that will pay dividends in March and provide a nice RPI boost.
Regardless of a win or loss against Florida, the Zags will see one of Duke/Butler/Texas (though if we see Portland State that would mean some funny stuff happened on the other side of the bracket) in the final game of the “Motion Bracket.” Since Duke is reloading with four incoming freshmen rated in the Top-10 of the 2017 class (6 ESPN 100 recruits in total) that includes phenom Marvin Bagley III, along with the remorseful Grayson Allen, it would be the betting favorite to make it to the Final from that side of the bracket. A Gonzaga-Duke game in November would be absolutely fantastic, but a game against Texas (will Mo Bamba’s brother be there?) or Butler would also be a lot of fun while augmenting the non-conference résumé.
Big East Showdowns
A home matchup against Incarnate Word sandwiches PK80 and a doozy of a first week of December that simulates what could have been if that Gonzaga to the Big East storyline came to fruition. In what is being labeled the “Jesuit Basketball Classic,” our friends from Creighton will come to Spokane on December 1 in the first leg of a home-and-home series. This will be a great test for the Perkins/Melson/Norvell triumvirate as the Bluejays feature one of the most formidable backcourts Gonzaga will see all year. Marcus Foster is the headliner for the Bluejays, and his backcourt mate Khyri Thomas is an under-appreciated guard who is an excellent defender. Creighton finished 3rd in the Big East last year en route to a first round NCAA Tournament elimination at the hands of Rhode Island. They should be in the mix for another tournament berth this season.
After Creighton’s visit, Gonzaga heads to New York City to play Villanova at Madison Square Garden in the Jimmy V Classic. In a showdown of the Top-2 teams in the KenPom rankings last year, this should be considered one of the best non-conference games across the NCAA this season. The Wildcats lost Kris Jenkins and Josh Hart, and will field a team without any seniors on scholarship. However, junior point guard Jalen Brunson has started every game of his collegiate career, Mikal Bridges has some high level physical tools, and Phil Booth will look to make up for lost time after a long injury layoff.
Gonzaga has had success against Big East teams in recent years (Xavier and Seton Hall), but this will be a tough week in the heart of the non-conference slate.
True Road Games (something Saint Mary’s doesn’t know much about)
The Zags don’t have too many true road games on the schedule this year, but do have a pair in Seattle against Washington on 12/10 and then at San Diego State on 12/21 to close out the non-conference schedule. The NCAA announced over the summer that it was redefining the term “quality win” and placing more emphasis on road victories, while not penalizing teams as much for quality road losses. Gonzaga’s biggest games will be played on neutral courts, so it’s important to take advantage of the few true road games we have this season.
The Huskies lost out on top-recruit Michael Porter Jr., who decommitted after Lorenzo Romar was fired. However, I suspect the Huskies will be more competitive under Mike Hopkins than they were last year when they visited The Kennel (when you hit rock bottom, there’s no where to go but up, right?). Hopkins spent 22 years as an assistant to Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, and is probably installing that annoying zone-defense as you’re reading this. The “pick-up team with uniforms” era may be over, but it will never be forgotten. At least, we shouldn’t let UW fans forget about it. For that to happen, the Zags need to take care of business in Seattle.
Gonzaga closes out the non-conference season with a visit to sunny San Diego right before Christmas. For the Aztecs, Gonzaga represents their best opportunity for a signature win. San Diego State isn’t quite the program it was just a few years ago, but this game’s position in the schedule has the markings of it being a possible trap game. The Zags will need to be focused before they shut things down for Christmas break and transition to WCC play.
So there you have it. There are some great games in store over the next two months, and we’ll be here to break them all down one-by-one.