Last week while thinking about what I’d write in this article, four points came to mind:
1. Could this team win without Tillie?
2. Would Kispert accept more responsibility for scoring and leadership?
3. How well would Gilder and Woolridge be integrated with the team?
4. Could the freshmen really perform against elite competition?
Then the results of Saturday’s scrimmage filtered out and the answers appeared to be:
2. Damn straight
3. Exceedingly well
4. They could dominate
So much for the “What If It All Goes Wrong” article, reserve a room in Atlanta, buy your tickets to the Final Four and have the rib eye at Bones and the onion rings at the Varsity.
If it were only that simple. Every pre-season, we all put on our Zag-colored glasses and think this could be the year. We might lose a game, maybe two in the non-conference. Then, go through the conference play like a hot knife through butter, win the WCC Tournament just for emphasis finally receiveing a one or two NCAA tournament seed. Even though everyone is feeling pretty good after the Michigan State scrimmage, there are still several potential pitfalls the team could encounter to make the season go south. If it all goes wrong, one or more of the items listed below could be the reason.
Tillie, Petrusev, Fouls and Defense: It’s a given a healthy Tillie makes this very good team an elite team and we’ll hold our collective breaths every time he hits the floor or limps off the court. Even if he stays healthy and plays every game, there still could be some issues on the defensive end.
In his first three seasons, Tillie has played alongside Karno, Collins, JWIII and Clarke. He’s been able to block shots from the weak side and gamble on defense because there was someone solid under the rim. He probably won’t have that luxury playing next to Petrusev. Besides Filip’s questionable defense, he and Tillie combined for 12.3 fouls per 40 minutes last season. These two are probably one of the most proficient offensive front lines in the country, but foul trouble could neutralize them, changing the entire complexion of the team. Expect teams with talented frontlines to test Killian and Filip early and often.
Kispert as a Primary Scoring Threat: The least amount of shots Zach Norvell Jr. took in a game last season was six and it happened twice. Corey took six or less shots in 21 games. His offensive rating (per 100 poss) last season was 11th on the team and actually decreased 3.5 points from his freshman year. Corey Kispert, he of the textbook form jumper and the thunderous drives to the rim, sometimes disappeared in games. With 77% of the teams scoring from last season playing in the NBA or Europe (Crandall in the Czech Republic, Jeremy Jones in Austria), Corey must be more aggressive and much more consistent offensively. His deep shot will be instrumental in spreading the defense and the extended three-point arc should allow him lanes to drive to the basket. He just has to take advantage of the opportunities
The Backcourt is Thin: Let’s give the two most obvious questions concerning the backcourt the benefit of the doubt: Admon Gilder is fully recovered and Ryan Woolridge can go from running the KenPom 185th ranked team to one in the top ten. Gilder and Woolridge providing excellent, consistent play will be one of the keys to a successful season. The problem will be what if one of them goes down with an injury?
Joel Ayayi would be the most obvious choice to fill the void. He carried the scoring load for France at the FIBA U19, averaging 21 points per game and shooting 51% from the field. The problem is he averaged 21 shots in 26 minutes, most being slashes through the lane to get to the glass. Watching his highlights, I can’t help being reminded of Manny Arop, Guy Landry-Edi and Gerard Coleman, great slashers who ran afoul of Mark Few because of individual play. Joel needs to prove play a more team oriented game and hopefully he can do so in his third year at Gonzaga.
If Joel is a question mark, Brock Ravet is a conundrum. Some think he’s the next Kevin Pangos with a better outside shot, others think he’ll go the way of Jesse Wade. Whatever the case, it doesn’t seem likely the young man will go from playing 2B basketball in Washington to playing significant minutes for a top 10 D-1 team this season. Even if he can, will he be able to play adequate defense?
Maybe Kispert could spend minutes at the “2” with Watson playing the “3”? Yes it’s an option, but even with the defensive improvement Corey showed last season could he keep up with a lightning quick 6’ 2” guard? Would that guard blowing by Corey and getting to the basket add a foul or two to Petrusev or Tillie’s totals?
I remember going to the Kennel four years ago to see the Zags play Montana and watching Justin Triano make an appearance in the 2nd quarter of a tight game. This season, could Matthew Lang be called on to play meaningful minutes?
Freshman play like freshman: The 15-16 team mentioned above squeaked by Montana by three but ended up losing two of three games at home that week. One of the primary reasons for their difficulties was freshman Josh Perkins and Bryan Alberts along with unproven sophomore Silas Melson struggled mightily. For the first time in recent memory, the entire second unit except unproven sophomore Joel Ayayi mentioned above, will be freshman.
Timme and Watson will both be in the eight-man rotation and undoubtably have great offensive skills, but the question marks are how well they can defend and limit mistakes and turnovers. Game speed along with the increased physicality will be huge adjustments. Zach Collins averaged 6.2 fouls and 3.5 turnover per 40 minutes his season with the Zags. Remember the frustration of young Sabonis after receiving a foul call his freshman year?
Should Tillie miss games, Timme or possibly Watson would have to take his place as a starter. This would move Zakharov or Ballo into the rotation, should Ballo receive his eligibility. They will be extremely young freshman. Both reclassified from the 2020 to the 2019 class and could easily be high school seniors this year. Timme and Watson both recently turned 19, Zakharov turned 18 in May with Ballo turning 17 in July. Could the younger players be more susceptible to mistakes?
Bottom Line: The zenith of what could go wrong would be injuries to both Tillie and Woolridge or Gilder simultaneously. If this occurred during the toughest part of the non-conference schedule, it could mean consecutive losses to Washington, Arizona and North Carolina. If the injuries continued during conference play, Gonzaga could easily drop to third behind St. Mary’s and BYU. Worst of all, the consecutive NCAA tournament appearance streak would be broken.
Remember, these are worst case scenarios. If Mark Few and staff have proven anything over the years, it’s the ability to integrate disparate individuals into a cohesive team that really care about one another. No matter how much a team has struggled early, they always have found a way to improve throughout the year and come together in March. Elite teams turnover several starters each season forcing freshman to step up, play big minutes and carry the load. I expect nothing less from this bunch and apparently so do KenPom and sportswriters and broadcasters of the Associated Press.