Keith Ybanez: Gentlemen, it’s good to be back and talking college basketball again. First things first, a very hearty welcome to Tuck as he takes a seat at the digital 3-on-3 table, and a tip of the hat to our good friend Steven who we will certainly miss having around the blog streets. How’s everyone feeling? Recovered from the events of April 5 and ready to get hurt again?
Peter Woodburn: The beautiful thing about trauma is that it is the brain’s way of protecting you from true pain. I haven’t been this excited for basketball to start since last season.
Tuck Clarry: Yeah, I think I moved past that game faster than I expected. I guess it’s sort of easy when it’s that brutal that early? Regardless, I think staring down that tough loss has us ready to get back to watching winning again. The recruiting trail was great to see take its course and the Zags teased a bunch of great games for us early.
PW: It helps when you have the No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2021 (among others) to get the hype train out of the station.
KY: There are definitely a lot of great games early in the non-conference schedule and a lot of new faces on the squad. It’s going to be interesting to see how a young Gonzaga team navigates that gauntlet, especially as the preseason #1. What will be the biggest challenge, either as a team or individually, that Gonzaga will need to overcome to fulfill the preseason expectations and return to the Final Four?
PW: This team is going to have to come together quickly. I know that Mark Few is the perpetual under-seller of how good the team is, but there are a lot of new faces on this squad. They are all good faces, no doubt, but most of these guys have not played together very long. There will be growing pains, and I think it is safe to say they won’t be entering March undefeated. In all honestly, I think that bodes better for the long run in March Madness without that weight of the world on the shoulders.
TC: I think what I’m most intrigued by is how do you scramble to replace the pros that were on this roster? Joel Ayayi, Corey Kispert and Jalen Suggs have all already earned minutes in the NBA and replacing their impact won’t be a foregone conclusion. Managing expectations for a team that on paper could be better than one that was undefeated heading into the Natty seems to be tough. How does Few get his guys to buy into chopping wood? What do you measure yourself against?
KY: I think the worst thing that this team can do, and by extension the fan base, is to hold this team to what last year’s group accomplished. Trying to best a 1-loss season is TOUGH.
On top of that, I think what may end up being the most challenging issue is filling the leadership void left by Corey Kispert and Joel Ayayi. Corey, in particular, was Mr. Gonzaga, and the unquestioned leader of last year’s group, and someone whom Mark Few called one of the best leaders he’s ever had in the program. Much will be made about losing his perimeter shooting, which is a legitimate talking point, but his maturity and leadership were equally as important. As a senior and point guard, Andrew Nembhard seems like an apparent leader on this team and he has an even-keeled temperament that should play well on a team with so many young guys who will look to him as a guidepost. Drew Timme, of course, seems like the other natural leader on this squad with his big personality. But they are certainly different personalities than Kispert, and they had him and Ayayi on the squad last year and didn’t have to shoulder that burden. I’m curious to see how that all comes together.
PW: The leadership role is something that Few and company have done a great job of developing players into. Remember freshman year clean cut Corey Kispert? That guy look liked he wanted to sell you Bulldog Bucks.
KY: Haha, picturing 18-year old Corey slinging Bulldog Bucks is a great mental image.
TC: I’m very intrigued by who would be the guy to light a fire under the others. In that Athletic piece by Dana O’Neil, Nembhard made it clear he’s most comfortable leading by example. Does class clown Drew Timme seem like the guy that’s going to call others out? Maybe! It would be a great addition to his skillsets. But I think juggling this level of depth with no clear the guy (but with a lot of options to be that guy) could be fascinating.
KY: Exactly. I think both of them will be pushed out of their comfort zone in the leadership department.
PW: That is a very good point though. Leadership will be extra important on this team with so many young faces. Especially in close games against good teams.
KY: Let’s shift gears to the women’s team. After achieving the program’s highest ranking ever during the 2019-20 season, and then the program’s highest ever preseason ranking to open the last campaign, Lisa Fortier’s team experienced a lot of turnover. What are reasonable expectations for the women’s squad as they move away from a core group that provided a lot of success over the last few years?
TC: I could absolutely see the women’s team coming together to challenge BYU come conference tournament time. I think a lot of how the team fairs early is going to come down to the backcourt and how the Truong sisters adapt to being bigger pieces in the offense. I’m absolutely thrilled to see how Yvonne Ejim progresses her game though. I think Cierra Walker will be a great player to lean on but there will no doubt be some learning lessons leading up to conference paly.
PW: I am super excited about Yvonne Ejim, especially after her FIBA showing this summer. But I agree with Tuck. This is going to be a completely different looking team in the sense that we are finally without the Wirth twins and Jill Townsend. The Truong sisters have shown flashes of greatness, but overall need to improve their shooting in general to really help keep this team at where it was last season. There are a lot of intriguing younger players in the mix, and I think they can definitely compete with BYU for the WCC crown, but they are going to need some of the youngsters to step up.
KY: I think BYU as the WCC favorite with the Zags coming in behind them is probably right. This team will probably take some lumps early in the year as they learn how to play together and new roles are established. HOWEVVAAAAA, looking at this roster, I think this team is capable of producing some pretty entertaining offense with a more perimeter-based approach and versatile personnel, and I’m expecting them to play some really fun games.
PW: The real kicker for the women will be if they can figure out the consistency issues that plagued them last season. Some days, they showed up looking like they could beat anyone. Other days, they couldn’t hit the broadside of the backboard, and that is ultimately what bit them in the tournament.
KY: Those offensive droughts they would go through were so brutal. I’m cautiously optimistic about this group.
TC: I’m fascinated by what Fortier is going to do with Salenbien or how she’ll grow her game in her freshman season. She could unlock a lot of things offball or as a secondary ballhandler from the wing position as well. McKayla Williams could absolutely come out and help replace some of those Wirth and Townshend minutes. I’m excited to see how Ejim/Williams/Salenbien grow together in general.
PW: Yeah the youth movement is real for the women. There is no denying they lost a lot from last season but the future looks very promising.
KY: The buzz around a new campaign, as college basketball maniac Jon Rothstein would say, is palpable. What are you most looking forward to this season?
PW: I am really stoked for Drew Timme to become public enemy #1. I know that virtually all of us in Spokane love him to death, but as an opposing fan, I can see getting absolutely enraged by a honky looking white dude with a fu manchu and a penchant for celebrations. Timme leans into that role of the heel so perfectly and it is a great attitude marker for the Zags. People love to hate Gonzaga, and they love to do it even more since the Zags were so hyped last season only to get demolished by Baylor in the title game. Nothing will be more satisfying than watching Timme grind the haters into dust every game.
KY: Love that.
TC: I absolutely also look forward to Gonzaga becoming the “villain” to a lot of the country. It was bound to happen at some point if they keep getting ranked where they do and knock on the door of a championship. I also am intrigued by how Zag Nation responds to that chatter from outside. One thing that I look forward to a lot in general is that we’re going to see a lot better basketball matching up against the Zags. Not just because the shut-down season looks to be passed us, but also because of the great additions and building teams in the WCC made this offseason. The floor is so much higher and will no doubt help Gonzaga moreso than hurt them.
KY: I’m really excited for the Zags to be playing in front of a packed Kennel again. I was absolutely gutted that both teams didn’t get that experience, and particularly Jalen Suggs since that was his only run at it. Also, I think Julian Strawther is going to be a content machine. Folks are going to love him.
PW: All in all, I think it is going to be a really exciting year for the Zags. This team is going to be unique and electric.
TC: Can’t wait to see these guys get in transition and make the Mac shake. I can’t wait to no longer speculate what a unicorn like Chet can do. I can’t wait to just watch these guys figure it all out.