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Thanks to a big backcourt boost, Gonzaga should be even better this season

November 7, 2016 Columns, Your Phil of Hoops No Comments

Last season, Gonzaga’s run to the Sweet 16 overshadowed the reality that this team was far from a lock for the NCAA Tournament in the first place. Had they not won the West Coast Conference Tournament, they might have been in the NIT, as it was not typical of the seasons the program has had the last two decades.

The Bulldogs didn’t run through the WCC as they often have over the past couple of decades. Saint Mary’s actually had the top seed in the conference tournament via tie-breaker after sweeping them during the regular season. In non-conference play, it was debatable whether or not wins over Washington and UConn (both in the Battle 4 Atlantis) would be enough. They whiffed on their other chances, dropping close ones to Texas A&M (also at the Battle 4 Atlantis), at home against Arizona and at SMU, all by single digits.

This time around, there should be no debate. Though Gonzaga will certainly try to win another conference title, they shouldn’t need it to reach the NCAA Tournament. It starts on the perimeter, where they will be much stronger than they were a year ago.

Last season, the Bulldogs didn’t have the stellar backcourt they had two years ago. Though Eric McClellan, the WCC Defensive Player of the Year, is gone, there are plenty of reinforcements, starting with Washington transfer Nigel Williams-Goss and Cal transfer Jordan Mathews. Williams-Goss should step in and run the show from Day One, and he should be an all-conference player and then some, while few in the country can shoot from deep as well as Mathews can. Josh Perkins, who had to redshirt due to injury two years ago, is the only returning starter on the team, and Silas Melson and Bryan Alberts also offer experience on the perimeter. However, freshman Zach Norvell Jr. should get plenty of minutes right away and possibly start, especially if they go with three guards.

It’s a group that could be comparable to the crew they had two seasons ago, when they had the terrific senior trio of Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr. and USC transfer Byron Wesley, along with Perkins (before an injury) and McClellan once he became eligible after the first semester.

The frontcourt looked like it would have key personnel losses with Kyle Wiltjer graduating and Domantas Sabonis off to the NBA early, but Przemek Karnowski opted to return after redshirting last season. That gives them a big boost inside (in more ways than one), with Missouri transfer Johnathan Williams ready to step in alongside him after starting 32 games for the Tigers two seasons ago. There is plenty of size up front, as Karnowski is joined in the seven-footer club by junior Ryan Edwards and highly-touted freshman Zach Collins. Killian Tillie, whose brother played at Utah, also joins the program along with Japanese import Rui Hachimura, a late bloomer who played in the Jordan Brand Classic’s international game.

Early practice saw a hit to their depth up front, though, as Jacob Larsen, a 6’11” big man from Denmark, will miss the season due to a knee injury. Larsen was the MVP as he helped his country win the 2013 FIBA U16 Division B European Championship, played in the 2015 Adidas Next Generation Tournament and last February was selected to play in the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders at All-Star weekend.

The non-conference schedule is what you expect for this team: full of challenges. They host San Diego State in the ESPN Tip-Off Marathon, head to Orlando for the AdvoCare Invitational against Quinnipiac and either Florida or Seton Hall in the first two games, then come back west for another matchup with Arizona, this time in Hoophall LA in Los Angeles. Washington and MAC contender Akron visit Spokane, while they hit the road to play Tennessee in Nashville.

The West Coast Conference also changed up their schedule this season so they could start play after Christmas. Instead of a ten-week run, the schedule has been condensed into nine weeks, with no real travel partners. The games everyone will most eagerly await will be January 14 in Spokane and February 11 in Moraga against Saint Mary’s. A trip to Provo to play BYU on February 2 and a return visit on February 25 to wrap up the regular season will also be noteworthy.

Gonzaga has been on a remarkable run the last two decades. They have made 18 consecutive NCAA Tournaments, and since 1998, they have won the WCC regular season and/or conference tournament every year except 2000 and 2012. They have made it to the Sweet 16 seven times in that span. This season should continue a lot of that run, and with their stellar backcourt, there won’t be any questions about whether they need to win on a Monday night in early March to continue playing.

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