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Balancing act necessary with Gonzaga facing limited roster numbers

UPDATED: Thu., Nov. 7, 2019

Gonzaga head coach Mark Few was addressing an item on the to-do list – rebounding – after the Zags’ 95-64 season-opening win over Alabama State when his pragmatic side intervened.

“We’re going to probably have to rebound the ball better than we have so far, but again, that’s a tough one,” Few said. “When you’re low on bodies, to pound and hit each other in practice is not the answer. Maybe when we get a couple guys back, we’ll go to the (Michigan State coach Tom) Izzo shoulder-pad drills.”

That last line was delivered partly in jest, but it illustrates the fine line coaches walk when roster numbers envisioned all off season don’t match up with the current reality.

The Zags’ roster lists 12 scholarship players, one below the NCAA limit of 13. Programs typically use all 13 if they find what they want on the recruiting trail, but it’s not uncommon to hold one scholarship open for a late-summer grad transfer or a potential midseason transfer.

Gonzaga is working with nine available scholarship players, including four true freshmen, on game nights with senior Killian Tillie recovering from knee surgery, freshman Brock Ravet on indefinite leave and freshman Oumar Ballo unable to play in games as an academic redshirt.

The challenge for the coaching staff is balancing the players’ rest and recovery with quality work in practice and extended minutes in games.

“You try and decide what’s really important and what you’re going to cover,” assistant coach Brian Michaelson said. “In other years with a lot of depth, you can cover things that might not be imminent, but you have the bodies to do that.

“You try to find guys rest, rehab and treatment. The practice setting gives a lot more reps to guys that don’t see as many minutes and that always helps them develop.”

Gonzaga has leaned on a seven-man rotation that will obviously change with Tillie’s return expected soon. Freshmen Martynas Arlauskas and Pavel Zakharov have seen minutes in the second halves of the exhibition and season opener. Walk-on guard Matthew Lang recently returned from an ankle injury and played in the closing minutes of Tuesday’s lopsided win.

Sophomore guard Joel Ayayi is in line for considerable playing time behind starters Ryan Woolridge and Admon Gilder. Ayayi, who was 11th on the team in minutes played last season, has made the most of his court time.

Ayayi had 12 points, eight rebounds and five assists against Lewis-Clark State College. He added four points, seven rebounds and seven assists versus Alabama State. He has seven steals and just one turnover in nearly 50 minutes.

“He’s earned that (opportunity),” Michaelson said. “He’s a great team guy and he’s worked hard on his own and in practice. By the end of last year, he was playing really well in practice against a team that was No. 1 in the country with multiple pros.”

Gonzaga’s ‘Red Squad,’ essentially the backup unit that provides a scout-team look, is shorthanded, but it helps that Ballo is permitted to practice. The Red Squad was stocked in 2016 with Johnathan Williams, Jeremy Jones and Nigel Williams-Goss (when healthy), and Zach Norvell Jr., Rui Hachimura and at times Tillie in 2017. Kelly Olynyk and Kyle Wiltjer had shifts on the Red Squad.

Conversely, there have been seasons when personnel shortages made it a chore to field two five-man units for practice. In 2016, Przemek Karnowski played in five games before undergoing season-ending back surgery. Forwards Domantas Sabonis (31.9) and Wiltjer (33.6) logged heavy minutes, as did guards Josh Perkins (30.8) and Kyle Dranginis (31.2) in a seven-man rotation with eight available scholarship players.

Michaelson and managers suited up at times to help out at practice. Wiltjer and Sabonis both sprained ankles against Santa Clara, but less than two days later they combined for 65 points and 25 rebounds in an overtime win versus San Francisco.

This is shaping up as a season in which Gonzaga could have limited numbers requiring workload management, issues Few and his staff have encountered before. The 2016 team, with Wiltjer and Sabonis playing in all 36 games, won the West Coast Conference and reached the Sweet 16.

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