With the news that Killian Tillie will return to the Gonzaga Bulldogs for his senior year, the newly reformatted way-too-early top 25 polls began to trickle out. The Zags, sort of expectedly, averaged out somewhere in the low teens in a variety of national publications.
The mothership, for example, put Gonzaga at No. 13, their lowest preseason ranking since the 2016-17 season, saying:
The somewhat-but-not-really-surprising defection of Zach Norvell was a blow, but Killian Tillie’s decision to stick in Spokane for another year should keep Gonzaga near or inside the top 10 in most preseason rankings. A top 10 recruiting class and the addition of grad transfer Admon Gilder (Texas A&M) cushions the blow of the Zags losing their top four scorers from a season ago.
Mike Rutherford is correct. On one hand, the Zags are bringing their most talented recruiting class ever and adding a solid senior guard (with the potential of another in USC grad transfer Derryk Thornton). Mark Few and company have shown time and time again that the Zags don’t rebuild, they just reload.
This offseason, however, is unlike most standard offseasons. The Zags lost Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke and Zach Norvell to early entry and Geno Crandall, Josh Perkins and Jeremy Jones to graduation. That accounts for 80 percent of last year’s scoring and 90 percent of last year’s rebounding. Corey Kispert is the highest returning scorer at eight points per game. Granted, a halfway normal year from Killian Tillie would have occupied that spot, but the point stands the same: The Zags lost a ton from last season.
It is visible across the board at all positions. Killian Tillie will be able to provide leadership and dynamic scoring at the post, provided he is healthy. Filip Petrusev had a solid freshman year, and hopefully, an offseason of work will help out in some of the defensive issues that popped up last season. After that, it is relying on some combination of Drew Timme, Anton Watson, Oumar Ballo, Martynas Arlauskas, and Pavel Zakharov to fill in the rest. All five players are true freshmen. Oumar Ballo is only 16 years old for crying out loud. Most likely, one, if not two, or those players will redshirt for development.
The backcourt is the biggest question. Gilder is a reliable scoring guard who will provide some senior leadership. If the Zags are able to land Thornton, things are looking alright. If the Zags do not land Thornton, things at point guard are looking a bit questionable. The Zags return Greg Foster Jr. and Joel Ayayi as the sole backcourt members from last season, and the two combined for just 157 minutes. Brock Ravet demolished the high school competition, but can he do it at the next level?
Perhaps the last time Gonzaga faced this high level of turnover in the guard department was after the 2010-2011 season, when Steven Gray and Demetri Goodson handed off the baton to freshmen Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr, who still had the backup support of David Stockton and Marquise Carter. That 2011-12 team finished with seven losses, three in conference (four if counting the WCC Tournament).
Yoeli Childs is coming back to BYU, and that is a legitimate game-changer. Saint Mary’s is returning virtually everyone. Colbey Ross was first-team WCC last season, and he returns for Pepperdine. We’ve gotten used to the Zags rolling through the WCC with ease. Are we getting too complacent?
None of this is to say that the early season predictions are wrong or that all 13 of the scholarship wheels are going to fall off. But with as many legitimate open-ended questions facing the roster, at least at this point in the offseason, any top 10 ranking needs to be looked at with a grain of salt. We only have to flash back to the 2015-16 season, when a Gonzaga squad built around the hype of Kyle Wiltjer, Domantas Sabonis, and Przemek Karnowski started the season ranked No. 9 and ended the regular season with the WCC Tournament as a must-win to punch the NCAA ticket.
Of course, we can’t let cynicism get in the way of this highly-touted recruiting class. Watson and Timme look completely ready to hit the ground running. Ravet very well could be one of the best shooters Gonzaga, a school with a storied program of shooters, has ever seen. If the glass is half full, the Zags are at minimum a top 13 team.
Unfortunately, all we have in the immediate future is an offseason that will provide no answers because the college basketball season is truly “off” right now.