All right Gonzaga and TSSF fans, the seemingly endless off-season is almost over. We can put the recruiting and transfer disappointments on hold and worry about the 2018 and 2019 recruiting classes later. It’s time to talk about the upcoming season!
We all know the bad news, the loss of the NCAA’s best center, an All-American point guard, an ice-cold assassin 3-point specialist and probably college basketball’s best 6th man. Player loses like this have happened before, after the 08-09 season GU lost Heytvelt, Pargo, Daye, Downs and Ira Brown. The next season, 09-10, Mark Few pieced together a returning starter (Matt Bouldin), a part-time starter (Steven Gray), a sub (Demitri Goodson), an injured redshirt (Robert Sacre) and a newcomer (Elias Harris) to 27 wins with a first round NCAA Tournament upset of #8 Florida State.
The Zags face a similar situation this season, to overcome seemingly insurmountable player losses with a couple of last season’s starters, a couple of 2nd unit players and at least one new face who saw little or no minutes last season. Four choices seem obvious, the fifth not so much. As the season progresses and new players shine, the line-up may change at various times during the season. Anyway, here’s my starting five for the first game of the season:
The “1”: Josh Perkins
Like it or not, this will be Perks team next year and the success or failure of this season will be placed squarely on his shoulders. He’ll be the guy assuming the NWG role of putting the team on his back when a win is in doubt and taking the tough shot in crunch time. He’s definitely got the talent, he’s got the experience, seems to have the mental toughness, the only question is does he have the discipline.
Perk is known for the key turnover at the most inopportune time. Remember the 2008 Battle in Seattle when GU was about to upset #2 UCONN until Jeremy Pargo made an ill-advised length-of-the-court pass then failed to get the final shot off? The team’s letdown not only resulted in losing that game in overtime, it carried over to the next two with GU losing at home to Portland St. then on the road at Utah. Gonzaga my not have the luxury of letting winnable game slip away this season because of silly mistakes.
Mentioning how polarizing Perkins is seems redundant. He took a lot of heat last season for inconsistent play, but it truly appeared he put his own game and personal stats in check for the good of the team. He was second on the team in minutes played but 11th in shots taken per 40 minutes. Love him or hate him, he’s going key to Gonzaga’s success this season. His pull-up jumper is a thing of beauty (right North Carolina) and he’s capable of making phenomenal passes. He’s definitely capable of having a WCC Player of the Year type season and if he does, expect Gonzaga to compete at the highest level.
The “2”: Silas Melson
It’s hard to believe Silas Melson is a senior. It’s also hard to believe the guy who most fans picked as most likely to transfer after his sophomore campaign turned it around last season becoming a solid scorer with huge increases in all his offensive numbers. He also may be the team’s best defender. Take a possession or two next season to just watch him blanket the guy he’s guarding, think GBJ except three inches taller.
As solid as he was last season and with all the praise he deservedly garnered, it’s hard to forget how much he struggled the last time he was a starter and the team depended on him to contribute. Josh Perkins suffers from the same stigma. Just keep reminding yourself, these two aren’t the redshirt freshman and seldom used sophomore of the 15-16 season. In three years, they have been solid contributors to 100 Gonzaga wins, been undefeated in the WCC tournament and are 10-3 in the NCAA tourney. They are tough, battle-tested and proven winners.
The “3”: Zach Norvell Jr.
I think Norvell gets the nod over Rui, at least early in the season, for three reasons:
1. Few seems to favor a line-up with three conventional guards and tends to be conservative
2. The thin front court may force Rui to play a lot of time at the “4”
3. Norvell’s polish and experience will provide stability in the key early season games
Yeah I know it’s controversial and I could be as wrong as Oedipus Rex, but I think Norvell gets the early season nod. Not only for the reasons listed above, but also because of Zach Collins. Arguably the best player on last year’s team, Collins injected both the team and the crowd with a shot of adrenalin when he came into the game. Expect the same from Rui.
This in no way diminishes what Zach Norvell brings to the table. In fact, I wouldn’t be the least surprised to see Norvell lead the team in scoring. Besides watching him put on a clinic against West Georgia, most of us only know about the 14 threes he dropped in the Las Vegas Classic. Those expecting Norvell to be just another three-point specialist will be pleasantly surprised. As the son of a former D-1 player schooled in fundamentals, Norvell is just as adept at finishing at the hole or dishing to a teammate as he is firing away at the arc.
Who knows, Rui could play his way into a lottery pick, Kispert could be Kyle Collinsworth with a better jumper and the benefit of caffine and either could or possibly will start at the “3” at some point in the season. I expect Few to play it safe early in the year and for Zach Norvell to be just too good to keep off the court.
The “4”: JWIII
A no-brainer, Williams is going to be forced to play Sabonis-like minutes in the post this season. The problem; JWIII is not nearly as adept at post-play as Domas and will his game suffer without Karno and Collins drawing an inordinate amount of defensive attention or Karno feeding him great passes? Nope, expect a different looking team than what we’ve seen for the past half dozen years.
GU fans have gotten used to having a Karno, Sabonis, Olynyk or Sacre in the post, an NBA caliber big who dominates the interior. Welcome to a year of small ball. JWIII won’t play the post like Sabonis, he’ll athletically fly around the key like Turiaf. He’s a Greyhound who’s been stuck in the backyard. The guy is built for running the floor, filling the lanes on the break or swooping through the key with his lefty hook or a tomahawk dunk. The Greyhound will be off the leash.
The “5”: Killian Tillie
It didn’t take long for Tillie to become a fan favorite last season. Springy, smart and skilled; he proved capable of being able to do a little bit of everything and did so with a certain Joie de vivre. At only 18-years-old, he excelled in his supporting role with last year’s team. This year, can he become a star?
As previously mentioned with JWIII, Tillie is built for small ball. When playing the high post, expect him to be as likely to fire an 18-foot jumper or drive the key for a floater as he would be to pass into JWIII. While he won’t be impressing anyone with his post play, Tillie has demonstrated great instincts and a nose for the ball. He’ll be good at crashing the offensive glass, tipping in misses or back-tapping them to keep a possession alive. As with JWII, he’ll excel at running the floor.
Last season, post defense was an afterthought, no one would back Karnowski down. This season, it will be a real concern. First the good news; Tillie added 15 lbs. of muscle in the off-season. The bad news; this still leaves him 85 lbs. short (according to his GU bio weight of 215) of Karnowski or Edwards. Remember checking an opponent’s roster last year, seeing their starting post players were 6’10” 215 and 6’9” 227 and thinking about Karno feasting? Welcome to a year of zone defenses and guards doubling down. That is of course unless Jacob Larsen is as good as we all hope he’ll be.
If Larsen proves good enough to eventually start at center, expect Tillie to come in off the bench and provide the same kind of spark he did last season. If Ryan Edwards chose to quit basketball then transfer, I have to assume Larsen is pretty damn good.
There it is, my thoughts on this season’s starting five. With so much young and unseen talent on the squad, I won’t be surprised to see several different line-ups at various points during the season. I look forward to reading your thoughts.