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Gonzaga men: Time on Bulldogs’ side to put talented pieces together

Stop us if you’ve read this before, like, one year ago practically to the day: Gonzaga’s outlook is bright, even with Killian Tillie battling an injury leading into the season.

Nothing’s changed this fall. Well, the faces have changed quite a bit, with just four returning scholarship players surrounded by the addition of two graduate transfers and six freshmen.

And Tillie’s circumstances seem far more positive, with the senior forward expected to return fairly soon compared to missing the first two months of the regular season a year ago.

What rarely changes around Gonzaga is the annual challenge of putting the pieces together, whether the Zags are stocked with fresh faces or proven upperclassmen.

The Zags have plenty of the former and some of the latter, which suggests it could take some time for this crew to mesh. Then again, a 103-87 victory – sans Tillie – over No. 1 Michigan State in an Oct. 19 scrimmage indicates they’re on the right path.

“This is a team that really is going to get better,” head coach Mark Few said earlier this month. “Last year’s team got better, but we were pretty dang good in Maui, too. This one I’m hoping will be on a real (upward) trajectory as the young guys get more and more minutes.”

Backcourt

The Zags will lean on grad transfers Ryan Woolridge (North Texas) and Admon Gilder (Texas A&M) to log extended minutes. That’s a bit of a concern, with Woolridge coming off kneecap surgery in April and Gilder returning from a blood clot that left him on the sideline last season.

Both can fill up the stat sheet, with Gilder probably more of a bigger scoring threat. The duo’s defensive ability could be a huge difference-maker. The 6-foot-3 Woolridge has great quickness and ranks second on North Texas’ all-time steals list despite only playing three seasons. Gilder, at 6-4 and 200 pounds, led Texas A&M in steals as a sophomore and was second as a junior.

Frontcourt

The Zags have assembled an impressive collection of bigs, with five players standing 6-10 or 6-11. Gonzaga has the ability to continue operating inside-outside with probable starters Filip Petrusev and Killian Tillie. Petrusev has a high rate of points per minute. Tillie can knock down 3-pointers and works well in the high-low game.

Bench

Freshmen Anton Watson and Drew Timme are probably in line for the most minutes when Tillie returns to full strength. The 6-8 Watson can also play on the wing. Freshman center Pavel Zakharov, who played well in the Michigan State scrimmage, is also an option.

Incoming freshman center Oumar Ballo might have vied for playing time as well but was declared an academic redshirt by the NCAA on Monday. He won’t play in games but remains on scholarship and can practice with the team.

In the backcourt, redshirt sophomore Joel Ayayi is expected to become a rotation player. The 6-5 guard showed off his 3-point shot and dribble penetration ability for France at the FIBA U19 World Cup this past summer. Freshman Brock Ravet has deep shooting range and a strong basketball IQ.

Coaching

Mark Few has guided the program to new heights in the past five years with four 30-win seasons, two Sweet 16s, two Elite Eights and the 2017 run to the national championship game. The Zags are usually mentioned as Final Four contenders every year, even after losing key players to the pros.

Key games

Home games in GU history don’t get any bigger than blueblood North Carolina’s visit Dec. 18. Interestingly, the two could collide three weeks earlier in the finals of the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas. Both should be favored to reach the championship game, but for that to happen the Zags will have to navigate No. 12 Seton Hall or the preseason Pac-12 favorite, No. 15 Oregon, in the semifinals. North Carolina restocked its roster with standout freshmen Cole Anthony and Armando Bacot and graduate transfers Justin Pierce (William & Mary) and Christian Keeling (Charleston Southern).

In a six-game stretch from Nov. 28 to Dec. 18, Gonzaga could face five ranked foes, including road dates against Washington (Dec. 8) and No. 21 Arizona (Dec. 14). The Huskies, who have a pair of projected lottery picks in freshmen Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels, just missed cracking the Top 25. Arizona’s McKale Center is one of the loudest arenas in the country. The Wildcats boast top 15 recruits in point guard Nico Mannion and wing Josh Green.

Two meetings with rival Saint Mary’s (Feb. 8 and 29) should go a long way toward settling WCC supremacy. The Gaels are loaded with experience, led by WCC player of the year contender Jordan Ford and forward Malik Fitts.

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