Without playing a game, the numbers certainly are lining up for Gonzaga.
The Zags are No. 1 in the preseason AP poll. They have three, possibly four, WCC Player of the Year candidates. Four players are on watch lists for position awards nationally.
They’ve been No. 1 in KenPom’s offensive efficiency metrics the past two years and show no signs of slowing down.
The question now is, What will it all add up to as college basketball enters a season with considerable uncertainty due to COVID-19 concerns? Hopefully, we’re about to find out.
“I really think we have a great shot to do something special here,” senior wing Corey Kispert said.
GU’s offense has been putting up impressive numbers for years.
“I think we’ll be able to spread the floor a little more,” junior guard Joel Ayayi said. “Drew (Timme) has really been working on his outside game. Anton (Watson) is going to be playing major minutes. We can play Corey or Julian (Strawther) at the ‘4’.
“We have some really talented guards that can make plays off the dribble, but we’re not discounting the fact we have really good post players, and that’s been our bread and butter for years.”
Kispert and Ayayi are team leaders and program cornerstones, along with Timme. Kispert, coming off a huge junior season, is a proven 3-point shooter and hopes to improve as a ball-handler and defender. The 6-7 Kispert was highly productive stepping in at 4 at times last year. Don’t be surprised to see it happen again this season. He has the size to cover power forwards and his 43.8% 3-point accuracy, passing and driving ability works at the 4 or on the wing.
Ayayi has made huge strides since arriving in Spokane as a 17-year-old. The Frenchman has become a reliable scorer and distributor with a habit of hitting clutch shots. He’s one of the nation’s best rebounding guards and one of the team’s most versatile players.
Freshman Jalen Suggs is the presumed starter at point guard. Suggs, Ayayi and Kispert form a big, athletic backcourt that should rank among the nation’s finest.
Grad transfer Aaron Cook is experienced – 70 starts at Southern Illinois – a strong defender and can play point or shooting guard. Freshmen Julian Strawther and Dominick Harris bring strong prep credentials. The 6-7, 205-pound Strawther can play guard or forward. Harris has the potential to impact the game at both ends of the floor.
The departure of Filip Petrusev probably cost Gonzaga some No. 1 votes in preseason polls, but the Zags have a ready-made replacement in Timme and depth at the position with 7-footers Oumar Ballo and Pavel Zakharov. Petrusev was a force in the paint, but Timme has a broader skill set. The 6-foot-10 sophomore went coast to coast a few times in the Kraziness in the Kennel scrimmage. He’s improved his midrange shooting and can generate shots off the bounce. He was one of GU’s most productive players last season, averaging 19.1 points and 10.5 rebounds per 40 minutes. Expect his scoring (9.8) and rebounding (5.4) averages to climb with extended minutes.
“You’ll see everything you saw in his first year, but just way more of it,” Petrusev, now playing in his native Serbia, said of Timme. “He’s a guy that brings a different energy on the court, really talented and really crafty. He just plays with such joy and fun. It’s so fun watching him.”
Watson figures to start at the 4. The 6-8 sophomore had shoulder surgery in January after making five starts and playing in 15 games. His stats figure to rise, too, with additional playing time and a year in the program. Watson should pair nicely with Timme in GU’s high-low game, particularly if the Gonzaga Prep grad knocks down perimeter shots.
“Those guys are stepping into big leadership roles. They kind of have to go from the back seat to front seat,” Kispert said of Timme and Watson. “They’re the guys we’ll be leaning on in our frontcourt, whether they like it or not. It’s their time to go.”
Ballo has the edge as the first big off the bench. The native of Mali in West Africa, required by the NCAA to sit out last season as an academic redshirt, has improved his conditioning. He’s been a big-time scorer and rebounder in international tournaments and should provide rim protection. Zakharov and 6-7 sophomore Martynas Arlauskas are competing for time at crowded positions.
Staff continuity remains the main reason for Gonzaga’s remarkable rise to national power. Coach Mark Few, one win from 600 career victories, has guided Gonzaga to at least 31 wins in six of the past eight seasons. Tommy Lloyd, designated as GU’s coach-in-waiting, has made invaluable contributions in his 20 seasons. Brian Michaelson has been recognized as a top 40 coach under the age of 40. Roger Powell Jr. has been an ideal fit as he enters his second season.
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