No. 3 Gonzaga has deep and big team that’s among its best
SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Gonzaga this season marks the 20th anniversary of the run to the Elite Eight that first brought the Bulldogs to national prominence and it comes with coach Mark Few fielding what may be his best team ever.
Better even than the team that lost to North Carolina in the national title game two seasons ago.
With a bounty of new and returning stars, including Rui Hachimura and Killian Tillie, who spurned the pros last spring to return to college, the third-ranked Zags seem poised to make a run again at their first national title.
“I think we always have high expectations at our place,” said Few, an assistant on that 1999 Elite Eight team who became head coach a few months later. “It’s a good thing. We welcome that.”
The Zags “have the opportunity not only to be good but hopefully be one of the real special teams,” said Few, whose teams have never failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
This is the highest preseason poll ranking in Gonzaga history, trailing just No. 1 Kansas and No. 2 Kentucky.
The Zags did lose Johnathan Williams and Silas Melson to graduation from a team that finished 32-5 and made its fourth consecutive trip to the Sweet 16 last season.
But they return starting guards Josh Perkins (12.3 points per game) and late-season hero Zach Norvell Jr. (12.7 points), plus forward Tillie (12.9 points, 5.9 rebounds).
Hachimura came off the bench last year, but his raw athleticism excited pro scouts — as well as fans in his native Japan, where he is a media sensation. Now a junior, he averaged 11.6 points and 4.7 rebounds last year. Veterans Jeremy Jones and Corey Kispert also return.
There are seven newcomers, but two draw most of the buzz.
Brandon Clarke becomes eligible to play after transferring from San Jose State, where he averaged 17.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game as a sophomore.
“He’s easily the most athletic guy I have ever played with,” Perkins said. “Your jaw just drops.”
Graduate transfer Geno Crandall is coming from North Dakota, where he averaged 16.6 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game.
“We have the pieces to the puzzle,” said Perkins, who is recovered from a shoulder injury that slowed him last season. “Our job is to make that puzzle come together.”
The Zags as usual play a brutal nonconference schedule to make up for the fact that their West Coast Conference opponents are lightly regarded.
The nonconference schedule includes home games against No. 25 Washington and Texas A&M, a trip to a stacked Maui Invitational and road games at No. 8 North Carolina, Creighton and No. 6 Tennessee. Saint Mary’s and Brigham Young are likely their best conference foes.
“This team needs to play a schedule like that,” Few said. “To be honest, at this point I need to play a schedule like that.”
Last season ended with a loss to Florida State in the Sweet 16, a game in which Tillie could not play because of a hip injury.
“That loss, I think about it every day,” Perkins said.
Other things to watch this season:
TALL ZAGS: The Zags have plenty of skilled bigs, including the 6-foot-10 Tillie; the 6-foot-8 Hachimura; and the 6-foot-8 Clarke. The team may also use 6-foot-11 freshman Filip Petrusev, a prized recruit, off the bench.
FEW LOSSES: Few has the highest winning percentage of any Division I coach at 535-118 (.819). He’s won .897 of his conference games. The Zags have never won fewer than 20 games under his watch and have advanced to at least the Sweet 16 nine times. His long-time assistants are Tommy Lloyd, Donny Daniels and Brian Michaelson.
TILLIE LISTED: Tillie is among 21 players on the watch last for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award, given to the nation’s top center. The native of France led the Zags with 47.9 percent shooting from 3-point range last year, including 13 of 14 during the WCC tournament.
RUI MANIA: Hachimura is a celebrity in Japan and numerous television crews document his progress during the basketball season. He also is a force on the Japanese national team, and that raises concerns that he will get worn down during the college season. “Had him take a week off here and there because he’s played a lot of basketball,” Few said. “We’re just trying to pace him so he’s not exhausted in March.”