#1 Gonzaga 2018-19 Preview

- Ky McKeon


Key Returners: Josh Perkins, Zach Norvell Jr., Killian Tillie, Rui Hachimura, Corey Kispert
Key Losses: Johnathan Williams III, Silas Melson
Key Newcomers: Joel Ayayi (Redshirt), Brandon Clarke (San Jose State), Filip Petrusev, Geno Crandall (North Dakota)****


**** Geno Crandall is not on the roster as of 9/2/2018. Crandall's eligibility is pending completion of classes at North Dakota.

Outlook: Mark Few hasn’t missed a Tournament in his 19-year tenure at Gonzaga, a run that includes 17 WCC regular season titles and a 535-118 (.819) overall record. He’s steadily built the Zags from a mid-major Cinderella darling to one of the most dominant college basketball programs in the country. Since 2007, Gonzaga has had only two recruiting classes ranked in ESPN’s top 40, but Few has proven to be a master at bringing in players from overseas and through the transfer wire and an excellent talent developer. This season features perhaps Gonzaga’s most talented team ever on paper with five potential All-Americans and three legitimate first round NBA Draft prospects. With the WCC being the WCC, expect the Zags to roll to yet another 30+ win season (which would be the 5th in Few’s tenure).

The Zags are so tough offensively because of the balance of weapons they run out at every position. All of the Zag starters can score the basketball and Few uses this to his advantage depending on matchup. If a team is weak inside, Gonzaga can bully in the post, if a team drops back into zone, Gonzaga can make it rain from the outside. It’s this balance that vaulted the Zags to the 14th best adjusted offensive efficiency mark in the nation in 2017-18 (KenPom).

Most great teams over the years have had a strong senior leader, particularly at the point guard position. For the Zags, this is Josh Perkins, a 6’3” guard that has gotten better every season during his time in Spokane. Perkins really came into his own last season retaking the PG reins from Nigel Williams-Goss, posting his best assist rate and turnover rate of his career (though this TO rate was certainly boosted by a weak WCC). Perkins stepped into a bigger role on offense, particularly in scoring, and turned in yet another smoking three-point percentage (39.3% on 211 attempts) – his offensive rating was by far the highest in his three-year career despite the uptick in usage.

Prior to early July, point guard was the only area in which Gonzaga wasn’t deep, then North Dakota's Geno Crandall announced his intention to grad transfer to Spokane. Crandall is yet another in a long line of standout transfers to choose Gonzaga and should immediately contribute to the Dogs' championship cause. Last season at NoDak, Crandall poured in nearly 17ppg on .535/.414/.735 shooting. (NOTE: As mentioned above, Crandall is still not officially a Zag as of 9/2/2018).

A pair of sophomore wings, Zach Norvell and Corey Kispert, will fill in alongside Perkins. Norvell made a huge splash on both ends of the floor in his inaugural season, forcing his way into the starting lineup after spending the first few games coming off the pine. Norvell notched a shooting slash of .579/.370/.800 (2P/3P/FT) and seemed to steadily gain confidence as the season progressed. His biggest shining moment came in the Tournament when he lit Ohio State on fire to the tune of 28 pts. / 12 reb. / 4 ast. while shooting 6/11 from downtown:

Norvell is one of Gonzaga’s many All-American candidates and a surefire future NBA player. Kispert was overshadowed by Norvell in his freshman season, but the 6’6” wing out of Edmonds, WA turned in a super-efficient season of his own. His greatest asset is his three-point shooting ability, but he’s more than capable of scoring off the bounce. Kispert, who would be starting for most D1 programs, will provide a big-time scoring punch off the bench this season.

Joel Ayayi will likely see some time in his first official season as a Zag after taking a redshirt year in 2017-18. The 6’5” French combo guard is super quick off the bounce, a crafty passer, and a pesky defender. He'll push Crandall for playing time behind Perkins. Freshman Greg Foster Jr. likely has a year or two until he becomes an everyday rotation player.

Not many teams boast the frontcourt depth Gonzaga does. Few has the enviable situation of being almost too loaded at the 4 and 5 spot. French big man Killian Tillie will start at the 5 this season in his junior campaign. Tillie should be one of the best bigs in the country this year with his ability to score from all three levels of the floor; with a 47.9% clip from three-point range as a sophomore (and the #1 eFG% in the WCC), Tillie was arguably the best floor spacer in the country in 2017-18. His absence was perhaps the chief reason Gonzaga fell to FSU in last year’s Dance; if he stays healthy, he has a real shot at the All-American squad before he goes to the Draft.

Tillie drives the length of the floor after snagging a defensive rebound

Tillie, while a good shot blocker, is at his best on offense; he’s not an overly elite rebounder or defender. This is where returning forward Rui Hachimura and incoming transfer Brandon Clarke come in. Hachimura, arguably already the most famous Japanese basketball player of all-time, took the WCC by storm last season earning 1st Team All-Conference honors despite playing just over 21 minutes per game. With a 7’2” wingspan and good lateral quickness, Hachimura can guard nearly every position on the floor and has the driving ability to play out on the wing on offense. Last season, Rui ranked 1st in the conference in free throw rate and 2nd in 2PFG% - 2018-19 should be a big year.

Clarke comes to Gonzaga by way of San Jose State. As a sophomore, Clarke averaged 17.5ppg and 8.9rpg earning 1st Team All-MWC honors and lifted the usually terrible Spartans to a respectable conference finish. He’s a big-time shot blocker at 6’8” and a force on the glass, a.k.a. the perfect replacement for Johnathan Williams III.

Few of course has plenty of frontcourt production on his bench waiting to shine. 6’11” sophomore center Jacob Larsen should see some uptick in his playing time as he continues to work back from a knee injury, and top-100 freshman center Filip Petrusev looks to be the next Killian Tillie. Petrusev, a Serbian citizen who played at Montverde last season, is very skilled offensively and can space the floor from the 5-spot ala Tillie. He’s still a little thin, but Few could insert him into the lineup for spot minutes without too much worry.

Last season’s Zag squad was as stout defensively as it was offensively and this year’s version should be more of the same. Hachimura and Norvell are both versatile defenders and Clarke brings needed rim protection. Add in Perkins, a big point guard, defending opposing lead guards and Few’s squad should once again be tough to score against.

Bottom Line:

Gonzaga is arguably the most complete and balanced team in the country this season. Assuming conference play is another cakewalk, the Zags have a strong shot at securing a #1 seed in this year’s Big Dance. If the talented rising youngsters improve on already impressive freshman and sophomore seasons, Gonzaga could be cutting down the nets in March.