It was the seniors, the graduate players, and those whose career paths’ involved stepping away from the team at the end of the season for whom the abrupt end to the season must have been particularly difficult. I can’t help but wish a healthy Killian Tillie had had a chance to show off his super smooth long-range jumpers in an NCAA tournament to cap off his senior year. I can’t help but want to have seen the two grad transfers from Texas, Admon Gilder and Ryan Woolridge, get a chance to have their veteran hard work for the Zags pay off in a deep run through the tournament field in late March. And it’s a shame to have missed watching Filip Petrusev shine again as the bread and butter for the team down low, hauling in a few more double-doubles through some of the stiffest competition in college basketball. It’s a shame we can only imagine what might have been. The best we can do now is wish all these former Gonzaga basketball players the best in all their future endeavors. Bittersweet as the 2019-2020 season was, many of those who had to go will be playing basketball professionally in Europe and/or the NBA so we can cheer their efforts elsewhere.
Besides well-wishing, we fans need to give thanks. Thanks because the wait is finally over and college basketball is about to start up again—appropriately so, on Thanksgiving for Gonzaga. Though Covid continues to add uncertainty to schedules all over the country, college basketball has begun—today! And if you’re a Gonzaga fan, this 2020-2021 basketball team is something to really look forward to watching—and is set to face a number of daunting, highly-ranked non-conference opponents in November and December. With a truly challenging Thanksgiving season opener against #6 Kansas, followed by Auburn on Black Friday, the Zags are also slated to face Baylor (either #1 or #2 in the rankings), Iowa (around #5), and West Virginia (#15)—as well as a number of unranked foes in Spokane this December. Mark Few’s “We’ll play anybody, anywhere” attitude has truly come to its fruition this winter.
The question on many people’s minds: Does Gonzaga have the fire power to face up to that sort of a gauntlet and come out of 2020 still on top? The answer, many sportswriters agree, is Yes. It is with good reason many polls have the Zags at or near the top spot in the country. Losing premier players like Killian Tillie, and last years’ team leader in both scoring and rebounding, Filip Petrusev is never easy, but the Zags have some excellent grounding down low again this season. Drew Timme showed some serious mettle as a freshman last year when he was forced into a leading role, averaging nearly 10 points in 20 minutes per game. Timme will likely have a break-out season as perhaps Mark Few’s premier choice in what may be a hydra-headed Gonzaga frontcourt.
Few’s other options down low include Anton Watson who, though he showed early potential as an offensive weapon as well as a defensive specialist, missed the majority of last season after undergoing shoulder surgery. Many predict the now healthy Watson will start at power forward for Gonzaga and there’s a good deal of excitement behind that possibility—having seen hints of the basketball genius, skill and athleticism this Spokane local displayed last year. Having gained a year of tutelage in Gonzaga’s redshirt program, the young but “growed-up” Oumar Ballo, nicknamed “Baby-Shaq,” will also likely see some minutes on the court down low, especially when a tough, bruising presence is required inside. Freshman Julian Strawther, who Andy Patton calls “a certified bucket getter” may see minutes as well down low when Gonzaga opts to go “small.” The 6’7”, uber-athletic and uber-versatile newbie may have trouble finding minutes in Few’s often limited rotation, but with the number of great options Few has on the team this year, perhaps that narrow circle of players getting minutes might widen a bit. Pavel Zakharov, a 6’11” sophomore who played more of a classic center role in limited minutes last year, may also find minutes in the lineup. The gist of all this: Gonzaga’s deep.
That depth doesn’t stop there. The backcourt is crazy DEEP! The premier added jewel this season is freshman point-guard Jalen Suggs. As the most highly-raked (around #5) recruit in Gonzaga’s history, and an all-but-certain one-and-done before moving on to the NBA, Suggs is going to get a lot of attention this season. Whether he can live up to all the hype is something to be seen, but there’s no doubt that the potential for greatness is alive in this young man who is likely going to be able to drive, dish, dunk, shoot and defend with the best of them. And we’re excited to see him carve, dish it up and chow down on turkey day! The Zags have two excellent choices as backup point guard should Suggs require a breather, find foul trouble, or be otherwise troubled. It was recently announced that Andrew Nembhard, a highly prized transfer from Florida, is eligible to play for Gonzaga this season. With success and experience against some of the best programs in the country, averaging nearly 10 points and 6 assists per game in his two seasons at Florida, Nembhard is an added gem to the crown of riches in Gonzaga’s backcourt.
Aaron Cook, a graduate transfer from Southern Illinois is another. Cook displayed offensive talents last year as the Salukis’ leading scorer and assister at point guard before breaking his hand in a game against Murray State. Besides prodigious offensive skills, Cook is especially touted as a defensive specialist who racks up steals—and a lot of folks, including Mark Few, are talking up his game. Whether he’s coming off the bench for Suggs, Kispert or Ayayi, Cook may be one of the primers (along with Anton Watson and company) behind an even more dangerous Gonzaga team that asserts its presence on both ends of the court equally well.
Corey Kispert, after an extremely successful Junior campaign, steps into the definitive role of veteran leader of the team as the only senior starter. Look for the sharpshooter to expand his game even further—not only shooting accurately from everywhere (nearly 44% from deep last season) on the offensive end, but driving to the hoop more frequently, dishing the ball more adeptly and stepping it up on the defensive end. He and fellow veteran and backcourt starter, Joel Ayayi (both of whom entertained the possibility to heading to the NBA last year) will be the inspiration for many of the youthful, talented Zags. A native of France, Ayayi was particularly adept at racking up all manner of statistics last year. An excellent scorer and rebounder, Ayayi found double-double numbers in a few contests and was just a few assists short of getting a triple double in a few. Ayayi is an electrifying presence all over the court and will no doubt anchor the backcourt with Veteran leadership along with Kispert.
This year’s Bulldog team, while it will definitely have characteristics of Few’s teams in former years, seems to have the potential to do things Zag fans aren’t accustomed to. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gonzaga experiments with full court defensive pressure on a regular basis. Speaking of defense, I suspect the Zags (not always known for their defense) might become a smothering presence on their opponents’ end. On the offensive end they will continue to lead the nation. I also suspect Mark Few, with almost an embarrassment of riches, will mix up his line up more often and find minutes for as many as 10 to 13 players. Whatever happens, it’s gonna be exciting! Happy Thanksgiving!! Go Zags!!!
~ Clark Karoses