Many college basketball pundits expected this space on this date to be packed with coverage of Gonzaga’s second of two wins in front of an adoring audience at the Spokane Arena.
The second-ranked Zags did their part to reach those pages of a storybook scenario but didn’t get an opportunity to complete the task.
The NCAA Tournament was canceled last week due to the novel coronavirus, including the opening-week games that many consider the best four days on the sports calendar.
So the Zags are left with a pair of good consolation prizes, absent the theater of March Madness. First, one of the finest regular seasons in program history. Second, a promising outlook for next season and beyond.
For returning players it was a season in which Corey Kispert was clutch, Filip Petrusev became a force inside, Killian Tillie showed off his considerable skill set when his body cooperated, and Joel Ayayi emerged from a two-year apprenticeship as a valuable contributor.
Among transfers/newcomers, Ryan Woolridge proved he could hit 3-pointers, Admon Gilder thrived as a starter and backup, Anton Watson demonstrated his versatility before a balky shoulder interfered and Drew Timme produced one of the better seasons in program history by a freshman big.
To put Gonzaga’s 31-2 campaign in perspective, one needs to rewind to September or even the season tipoff in November. The Zags were No. 8 in the preseason poll but had plenty of doubters and multiple concerns.
Could Woolridge handle point guard after the graduation of Josh Perkins? Could Tillie stay healthy? Could returners step into expanded roles?
Could Petrusev develop into the program’s next great big? Who would provide leadership? Could freshmen Timme and Watson be counted on in big games?
Nearly every one of those questions was met with positive responses.
A third-team Associated Press All-American, Petrusev produced night after night and softened defenses by repeatedly putting opposing bigs on the bench in foul trouble. He was named West Coast Conference Player of the Year over Jordan Ford of Saint Mary’s and BYU’s Yoeli Childs in arguably the conference’s best season in decades.
Kispert became a cornerstone. He was second in scoring (13.9 points per game), logged the most minutes (33.0) and shined on the biggest stages. He had five 3-pointers and 17 points vs. Oregon, 18 points vs. Arizona, 26 against North Carolina and two crucial buckets late in a road win over San Francisco.
Kispert’s stats were matched by his leadership.
“He’s the ultimate mesh guy,” Timme said after GU’s win over Saint Mary’s in the WCC Tournament. “He puts himself below the team. Especially for us freshmen, it’s a lot of ups and downs, it’s kind of a circus show and a new situation. He especially helped and guided me, along with Kill, Fil, Admon and Ryan.”
Woolridge brought a competitive edge, high-level defense and 43.2% accuracy from distance, just behind Kispert’s team-leading 43.8%. The North Texas grad transfer played through various bumps and bruises without complaint.
Ayayi filled up the stat sheet. The wiry 6-foot-5 wing finished first in free-throw percentage (82.5) and second in rebounds (6.3), steals (42) and assists (106). He had a knack for crunch-time baskets, including both WCC Tournament wins and a dagger 3-pointer vs. Washington.
“He’s kind of better in the last four minutes than the first four usually,” said coach Mark Few, whose team finished No. 1 in the NET rankings. “You go all the way back to the Bahamas, he made big plays, or the Washington game.”
Tillie battled through injuries to put up 13.6 points, 5.0 rebounds and his fourth straight season making at least 40% of his 3-pointers. Gilder joined five other double-digit scorers at 10.7 points and committed the fewest turnovers (32) of the six who played in all 33 games.
Timme did some of his best work when injuries shortened the Zags’ rotation. The moment was never too big for the 6-10 forward, who improved at both ends of the court in the closing month.
Watson filled in capably when Tillie was sidelined. The Gonzaga Prep product has a natural feel for the game and was a difference-maker prior to season-ending shoulder surgery.
“All the adversity that’s been put on us,” Few said after the trophy presentation in Las Vegas. “We’ve never been this low on depth, except maybe my first team where we had six guys and Mike Nilson blows his Achilles (tendon) and takes us down to five.
“These guys have to deal with it all season, but the expectations never dropped. Corey did a great job of really being a leader and showing these guys the Zag way, as did Kill and Joel, but Corey really did the yeoman’s work on that.”
High expectations will return next season and they could be through the roof, depending on upcoming NBA draft decisions from Petrusev, Kispert and Ayayi. The frontcourt should include Timme, Watson, Pavel Zakharov and Oumar Ballo, who is coming off an academic redshirt year.
The backcourt is thinner on paper with the exit of Gilder and Woolridge. The picture changes considerably if Kispert and Ayayi opt to return and they’re joined by Jalen Suggs, Dominick Harris and Julian Strawther in Gonzaga’s ninth-ranked recruiting class.
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