Is Gonzaga doing enough to make up for its WCC schedule? That is the persistent question pondered by fans, media, and the coaching staff as the non-conference schedule is pieced together—and again when it is time for the Tournament Committee to assign seeds to each team in the field in March. And it is that last group whose opinion matters most (apologies to the commenters on this website—you all matter to me). So with that in mind, let’s take a deep dive into the non-conference schedule Mark Few and Mike Roth were able to build for the 2019-20 season.
The naysayers will compare this non-conference schedule with last season and say it is a step back. Sure, there is no opportunity to beat Duke again (yes, that is still a thing that Gonzaga did and it was delightful), nor is there another high profile neutral-court showdown with Tennessee or road visits to Omaha and Chapel Hill. But the Cal-State Bakersfield Roadrunners are coming to town, and really, what more could you possibly want?
In all seriousness, this non-conference schedule strikes the right balance between solid resume boosting opportunities while providing a longer on-ramp to incorporate eight (!!) new faces to the roster. Whether Few and Roth had the foresight to plan for that is beyond my speculative powers, but I will happily speculate about how many wins Gonzaga can rack up before WCC play begins.
Gonzaga should be 3-0 when they travel to College Station, TX on November 15 to play Texas A&M. If not, then we have much bigger issues on our hands. The Zags handled the Aggies quite easily last season in the front end of this home-and-home. While Gonzaga’s top four scorers from that game are all wearing professional jerseys now, it is reloading while Texas A&M is rebuilding with a new regime in charge. You can count on Admon Gilder bringing the heat in this game as well, and while road games in the SEC are tough this game is being played on the court instead of the gridiron. So, the Zags should be 4-0 when the leave College Station and 6-0 when they head to the Bahamas after squeaking by the aforementioned Roadrunners.
When Gonzaga last visited Atlantis, I was fresh on the blogging beat and we were assessing the viability of playing Przemek Karnowski, Domantas Sabonis, and Kyle Wiltjer together in a jumbo lineup. Those were the days. That ended up being a tricky tournament for the Zags and the harbinger for a tricky season. After stomping Washington in the opening round (as if there was any other possible outcome), they narrowly lost to Texas A&M in the second round before barely hanging on against UConn after blowing a sizable lead. Karnowski was lost for the season the following week, and then HBO’s cameras followed that team’s roller coaster ride of a season as it reinvented itself on the fly. Oh, right, we’re supposed to be talking about the 2019 Zags.
Much like 2015, I don’t expect the current Zags to have any difficulty with its opening round game against Southern Miss. The next two rounds is where things get interesting. In the second round, I would expect to see an Oregon squad that has also reloaded this offseason (though Seton Hall is good, folks). That potential matchup lost some of its bite with the recent news that the Ducks’ 5-star freshman center N’Faly Dante will not be eligible until mid-December, but, Oregon is led by Payton Pritchard and a stellar recruiting class that got a boost after several reclassifications and will not be an easy out. I give the slight edge to Gonzaga, but this game will be a difficult one.
If the Zags get by Oregon, we could be gifted the first of two games against UNC this fall unless Michigan or Iowa State spoils the party. For the sake of schedule diversity and my own curiosity now that Juwan Howard has replaced John Beilein, I’m rooting for a Michigan-Gonzaga matchup. The Wolverines will be anchored by seniors Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske, along with freshman forward Franz Wagner (brother of Moritz Wagner) who would probably have been a 5-star recruit if he was an American prospect. Because I don’t want to upset the basketball gods, and to stay consistent with my form from last year when I incorrectly predicted that Gonzaga would lose to Duke in the Maui Final, I’ll go ahead and predict that Gonzaga will lose to Michigan in the Atlantis Final (*wink).
After returning from the Bahamas as
champions runners-up (*wink wink) and an 8-1 record, the Zags will get back to winning ways in their annual game against Texas Southern before a 10-day stint on a high major schedule.
Back-to-back Pac-12 road games against UW—I use road game loosely for this one—and Arizona will be challenging even though the former is still haunted by Rui Hachimura’s game winner at the elbow and the latter is in a downward trend that Few could not have foreseen when he renewed this series. The Huskies—somehow still a Division I program—lost a ton of production to graduations after last season. Be wary, however, as this game is the headliner of their non-conference schedule and they will assuredly be desperate to get in the win column of this rivalry after four consecutive losses so...Gonzaga by 20.
The McKale Center is by no means an easy place to play, but the Wildcats failed to protect their home court last year (5 losses at home) and missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in six years. Justin Coleman—who hung 28 points on Gonzaga in a losing effort in Maui—graduated, and former Gonzaga recruiting target Brandon Williams is out for the season after undergoing knee surgery. In their absence, the Wildcats will turn to freshmen Nico Mannion and Josh Green, and I guess Chase Jeter is still there with five fouls to give. Needless to say, Gonzaga should welcome UNC to Spokane with a 11-1 record intact.
The Tar Heels are headlined by freshman phenom Cole Anthony, who is projected to be another high NBA pick next summer much like his predecessor Coby White. Anthony should be special, but UNC lost the core of its team that easily dispatched Gonzaga last December, and there are a lot of question marks about how it is going to make up that offensive production this year. I’d bet on Roy Williams figuring out those questions, but I favor Gonzaga’s overall depth and balance in this rematch. Of course, if Gonzaga’s students can’t provide the Tar Heels with a hospitable welcome because they don’t have anywhere to stay during the break, I will go back and delete this paragraph.
After UNC leaves town, Gonzaga will get to enjoy the immense emotional letdown of hosting Eastern Washington and Detroit Mercy in what will almost certainly be closer games than they should. But, the Zags will get to put a bow on 2019 with a 14-1 record to show for it.
So there you have it, the first two months in a nutshell. All they have to do now is play the games.