I read a very heated debate in August on whether Joel Ayayi or Ryan Woolridge should start and it got kind of personal. It was at that point when I said to myself, “Wow, this offseason is way too long.” Well, good news, folks: the longest offseason in college basketball history is finally over, and the Gonzaga Bulldogs begin their season on Friday with an exhibition game against Lewis-Clark State College.
We have seemingly talked ad nauseam about the roster, the expectations, and who will be the next breakout star. Once Gonzaga beat Michigan State in their closed-door scrimmage, expectations immediately rose, fair or not. Today, we try and put all the offseason chatter into five of the most important storylines to watch as the new year finally hits.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first... The ceiling of this team, as we all know by now, comes down to the health and production of Killian Tillie. When at his best, he’s a first round NBA talent and one of the most dangerous players in college basketball. With him clicking, the Bulldogs are a top 10 team. Without him, it requires large scoring contributions from Drew Timme and Anton Watson. In short, Tillie’s health is not just important for his own production, but also for more realistic development and expectations for the freshmen.
It appears that Ryan Woolridge and Admon Gilder are either at or near 100 percent from their health concerns. With Joel Ayayi and Brock Ravet waiting in the wings with zero meaningful minutes in big college games, it will be incumbent on the two graduate transfers to lead the team in minutes and guide the offense efficiently. Gilder was an NBA prospect heading into his senior year before a blood clot took him out of action. He’s a legitimately talented leader, who I don’t think fans will appreciate until they see him play.
Last season, it felt like the Zags had issues on the defensive end for a good portion of the season. A lot of their issues were masked by Brandon Clarke’s ability to protect the rim. Josh Perkins, Corey Kispert, and Zach Norvell had the three worst defensive ratings of any player who averaged more than five minutes on the team last season. By the end of the year, the numbers looked like a top 15 defense, but there always seemed to be way too many easy drives. Because of this, Clarke or Rui Hachimura would have to help, creating weak side rebounding opportunities. GU had their worst defensive rebounding season since 2015.
Ryan Woolridge and Admon Gilder both come in with reputations of being lockdown individual defenders. Woolridge had a defensive rating of 90 last year, four points higher than Gonzaga’s aforementioned guard trio. Gilder averaged 1.6 steals in his last two seasons at Texas A&M. Not a single Gonzaga player in the last 20 years has averaged more than that in a two-year period. Mark Few’s teams typically don’t force many turnovers, but rather force teams into tougher shots. Wooldridge and Gilder should help force turnovers and also lock down opposing guards enough to limit the number of drives and offensive rebounds.
Only three Bulldogs made more than 15 threes last season. Two of them are gone. One of those hit the third most in an individual season in program history (Norvell, 97). The other hit the fifth most in a Gonzaga career (Perkins, 251). So what happens now? Well, Corey Kispert is still here, and he went from hitting 40 threes on 35 percent shooting to nailing 61 threes on 37 percent shooting between his freshman and sophomore years. As a junior, he may be expected to hit close to 75.
Woolridge only hit 47 triples TOTAL in three years at North Texas, so don’t expect a ton from him. Gilder, on the other hand, shot just under 40 percent from deep his junior year, while hitting 47 threes. Killian Tillie, if healthy, is obviously a very capable stretch forward. Filip Petrusev has shown the ability to step out as well. Joel Ayayi has shown improvement over the summer and Brock Ravet is one of the greatest high school shooters in Washington history. But how much will either one of them play?
Last year, only 26 percent of Gonzaga’s points came from beyond the arc, which ranked 309 in the country. They hit double digit threes just one time in their final 15 games. In their loss to Saint Mary’s, they were 2-for-17. In their loss to Texas Tech, they were 7-for-26. The team relies on hyper-efficiency in the paint to dominate teams, and the formula has produced the greatest five-year stretch in program history. But, at some point, this team will need to produce a little more from deep. The question is: who does that come from?
It seems apparent that Mark Few has his eight-man rotation set, with Pavel Zakharov being the ninth man who gets minutes as Tillie recovers from injury and Oumar Ballo deals with eligibility issues. With the versatility of several players, Coach Few and his staff can go several different ways with their lineups throughout games. Want a defensive-minded five? Woolridge-Gilder-Ayayi-Watson-Tillie would be incredibly tough to score against. Want a realistic massive lineup? Gilder-Kispert-Watson-Petrusev-Timme could play an extremely lengthy zone on defense and get plenty of post mismatches on the offensive end. Don’t be surprised if we see some more 1-2-2 full court press after free throws with Watson being the front man like Hachimura was last year. They have plenty of options and the experimentation in the non-conference will be fascinating.
Everyone will have their eyes on Jalen Suggs when football season ends. The 2020 dual-sport recruit has yet to commit, but all signs point to Gonzaga. With no commitment yet, and the never-ending rumors that he may choose football or play professionally overseas, Gonzaga fans will not feel confident until he signs the dotted line. On the 2021 front, big men Paolo Banchero and Chet Holmgren (Suggs’ high school teammate) are primed for massive junior seasons. GU is in with the blue bloods for both recruits and either one of them would be an enormous get for the program. As always, other names will appear, like Nathan Bittle, who said he plans on visiting GU at some point. And of course, pay attention to Dominick Harris and Julian Strawther as they complete their senior seasons and prepare to step foot on Gonzaga’s campus in the summer of 2020.