Let’s cut to the chase, is this year’s team good enough to return to the Final Four? The answer is yes, an emphatic hell yes. Veteran starters coupled with freshman phenoms will continue Gonzaga’s incredible string of NCAA success where the Sweet 16 is the baseline and anything less than the Final Four will be a disappointment.
Much of the off-season conversation surrounding this team was understandably about the incoming freshmen. After all, this is probably the best recruiting class in the school’s history. What hasn’t been discussed enough is the starting line-up will be one of the most experienced in the country: two fifth-year seniors, a four-years in the program senior, a two-year starter junior and sophomore who played in 32 games last season. That’s a combined 375 D-1 games between the five.
Leadership on this team will be plentiful. Tillie has already proven he can be a vocal leader on the floor. Woolridge and Gilder were both floor leaders on their previous teams and expect their guidance to be instrumental in developing the freshman. Finally, expect Corey Kispert to breakout as a leader and go to scorer.
Let’s address the knock on Kispert disappearing in games last season. He was playing with three NBA guys and a fifth-year senior who was the school’s assist leader. Deferring to those guys isn’t disappearing - it’s smart, unselfish and putting the team first. Watching Clarke, Rui and Norvell play, we’re lucky he didn’t just stand there in awe with his mouth open. He scored in double digits 15 times last season, including dropping 16 on BYU and Baylor on a team winning 33 games. He’ll step up this season.
Also stepping up will be Tillie and Petrusev, providing the Zags with one of the country’s most offensively skilled front lines. They also complement each other perfectly. Killian, who’s healing from his Oct 3 surgery, shoots 3’s at an incredible 47% clip. That number was dragged down by last seasons 43.8% when he was never at full speed. His ability to spread the floor and draw a big away from the paint will benefit Petrusev and his impressive array of post moves. Tillie and Petrusev are also very good passers, and their ability to work the high/low together will be fun.
Killian has demonstrated the skillset to be an NBA lottery pick and will hopefully remain healthy. If so, he can be like Frank Kaminsky, spend four years in college and still be a top ten NBA draft pick. Filip (19 points against Michigan State) is on track to have a breakout season and be the next Gonzaga underclassman to leave school early. We know he spent the summer dominating the competition for Serbia at the FIBA U19, but he looks like he spent a good portion of the off-season in the weight room. Not only is he buff, a guy nearly 7-foot won the “skills challenge” at Kraziness which consisted of dribbling slalom-style through cones, passing to a fan and then hitting a layup/dunk, free throw and 3-pointer.
Filip’s Achilles’ heel last season was his post defense. I see three reasons why it won’t be a huge problem this season. First is his bigger, stronger body and the fact he knew his defense was a problem he worked all summer to improve. Secondly, I’m guessing Oumar Ballo will play center for the Gonzaga’s “Red” practice team. He’ll have a quality true post player to bang against every day in practice and improve. Third, the team will have two large bodied, good defending guards to provide help and double teams should he need it.
I’m also expecting big things from the defensive minded guards mentioned above. Gilder is a flat-out stud with a great all-around game and proven history of strong play against elite competition. I expect Woolridge’s game to rise to the level of his teammates. He can concentrate on ball handling and distribution, so I expect his assist to turnover ratio to improve. Based on reports from the Michigan State scrimmage, Gilder (18 points) and Woolridge (9 points, 7 assists) played big minutes and both were outstanding
Joel Ayayi should provide solid minutes as first guard off the bench. At only 19, Joel already has two years in the Gonzaga system under his belt. According to his interview with Arden, the lightning fast 6’5” combo guard is working hard, knows what he needs to accomplish and is ready to have a breakout season.
Supposedly, Anton Watson started in place of Tillie in the MSU scrimmage and made his presence felt with a jaw-dropping 15 rebounds. Watson has the body and physicality of Elias Harris but with more fluidity and a better jumper. In a Fansided article, Watson says of himself, “I kind of see myself as like a Ben Simmons, as like, a tall guard. I love to pass.” He’ll be special, see plenty of minutes and I think has the highest potential of being one and done.
Drew Timme will also see major minutes. Highly sought by about two dozen powerhouse basketball schools, Timme apparently dropped 13 on MSU (one of those schools recruiting him). He already has the post moves that remind an old guy like me of Kevin McHale and also has the potential of early NBA entry.
According to an article in The Athletic concerning the Michigan State scrimmage, “6-foot-11, 235-pound freshman Pavel Zakharov was a physical load the Spartans couldn’t quite handle.” In the opening days of practice, Pavel was singled out by Mark Few for his impressive athleticism. He along with Watson, Ayayi and Timme will make an impressive 9-man rotation, with Watson possibly playing the both the “3” and “4”.
Brock Ravet is on track to be a fan favorite. Winner of Kraziness’s 3-point contest hitting 10 of 12 shots (6 of 8 from the corners, 4 of 4 from the top of the key), he’s in a great position to slowly get adjusted to the rigors and speed of Division 1 basketball. Anyone watching him play in high school know the extended three-point line won’t be a hindrance, he’s been hitting step-back 25-footers since his high school freshman year. He should get minutes against second unit WCC guards ensuring no one turns off a Gonzaga game early this season.
This team is so deep, so good, Martynas Arlauskas and Oumar Ballo may see very limited minutes on the floor this year. As Keith said in his player profile, Arlauskas is a potential match-up nightmare who declined a chance to play professionally to come to Spokane. Seems to me the Zags have had previous success with Lithuanians forgoing professional careers. Ballo may be forced to sit if his eligibility is not determined favorably. If he can play, expect a Rui-plan with limited freshman minutes then expanding over a season or two. This team has truly been blessed with an embarrassment of riches. If injuries are a problem, both Martynas and Oumar (when eligible) should be able to enter the rotation without missing a beat.
All the pieces are in place on the floor, but possibly the most important reason the Zags will have another successful season is on the bench: Mark Few and his staff. After the MSU scrimmage, a Michigan State staffer said: “Honestly, (Gonzaga) is good. They’re tough. Honestly, the frustrating part, it felt like we got out-toughed, and it felt like we got out-competed. That’s the problem.” Year in, year out Few builds a tough, skilled, cohesive unit from kids with disparate background from throughout the world. What’s the secret? Jesse Wade put it best after his BYU transfer when asked why Gonzaga is so good: “The thing about the Zags that makes them so good is they play for each other,” he said. “You know, they’ve got great guys and great players, great talent. But their togetherness is amazing.”
So yes, if all goes right, expect a return to the Final Four. Tillie will be a lottery pick, Petrusev, Gilder and Kispert will be NBA draft picks and Mark Few again will be honored with the Naismith College Coach of the Year. Am I dreaming? Maybe, but these expectations are not unreasonable. This team has the potential to be this good.