#8 Gonzaga 2019-20 Preview

-Matt Cox

Key Returners: Killian Tillie, Corey Kispert, Filip Petrusev, Joel Ayayi
Key Losses: Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke, Josh Perkins, Zach Norvell, Jeremy Jones
Key Newcomers: Admon Gilder, Ryan Woolridge, Drew Timme, Anton Watson, Brock Ravet, Martynas Arlauskas, Pavel Zakharov, Oumar Ballo


Outlook: The word “rebuild” has no meaning to Mark Few. Losing four starters (Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke, Josh Perkins and Zach Norvell) and a hyper-efficient 6th man (Jeremy Jones) has become business as usual for the Zig Zags, so don’t let the roster reshuffle bother you. The last time Few had to integrate a bunch of new pieces, you might recall Gonzaga marched all the way to the national title game (a game in which they could’ve won had Nigel Williams-Goss not gotten hurt).

The 2020 projected lineup may not have quite the superstar power of the 2016-17 juggernaut, but there’s still plenty of bullets in the chamber. The front line is absolutely loaded, headlined by Killian Tillie, who is set to go gangbusters on the WCC now that he’s fully healthy and no longer sharing minutes with Rui and Clarke up front. Once Tillie crosses the timeline, there’s nowhere on the floor where he can’t throw it in the ocean. He’s a career 47% shooter from behind the stripe and his percentages only go up from there as you approach the rim. The French native finished in the top-20 nationally in both true shooting percentage (64.5%) and effective field goal percentage (64.3%) two years ago, but his deadeye marksmanship is just a fraction of his overall toolkit.

Tillie’s versatility is the key to unlocking the upside of all the individual talent converging in Spokane this season. The roster may seem ‘big heavy’ on paper, but Tillie’s mobility on the perimeter, as well as the respect he commands with his jumper, enable him to slide out to the wing in some potentially mammoth lineups. While Corey Kispert has dibs on most of the minutes at the 3, bumping down Kispert to the second guard spot might be necessary to carve out more opportunities for Filip Petrusev (6’11), Drew Timme (6’10), Anton Watson (6’10), Pavel Zakharov (6’10) and Oumar Ballo (6’10).

Confession - I fell in love with Petrusev when I first watched him play with RJ Barrett back in his days at Monteverde Academy. The fact that there’s even a chance he winds up coming off the pine just goes to show how dynamic the freshmen are. Watson is a local kid from Spokane who has reportedly expanded his scoring range out beyond the 3-point line, a lethal pairing with an already established post game. It’s tough to gauge whether Timme or Watson will make the biggest impact right away, but Timme is the one I’ve gravitated towards after watching tape. The video footage below highlights two of my favorite aspects about his game:

  • He’s an absolute animal around the rim and plays with an infectious ‘F You’ mean streak that feeds his quest for contact.

  • He’s a tremendous passer out of the post and his ability to handle out in transition brings back shades of Rui’s ‘grab-and-go’ plays last year.

While the frontline has been built through the internal youth pipeline, the backcourt will lean heavily on a pair of experienced, external hires brought in via the transfer portal. Ryan Woolridge and Admon Gilder, who I’m hereby coining ‘the Texas Two-Step’, both come to Spokane after playing their AAU, high school and college ball all within the Lone Star state boundaries (Woolridge at North Texas, Gilder at Texas A&M). Interestingly enough, Woolridge and Gilder were former teammates way back in middle school, so this shapes up to be a fairy tale rekindling of old friends (not quite as ‘bromantic’ as Peyton Pritchard and Anthony Mathis at Oregon, but adorable nonetheless).

Ok, back to basketball. During his last three years at Texas A&M, Gilder shifted back and forth between the point and the 2-guard spot, but looked most comfortable playing off-the-ball. He’s got deep range and a quick trigger on his release, which opens up a reliable middle game when his defender hugs him too closely on the perimeter. Much like his predecessor Zach Norvell, Gilder is a disruptive on-ball defender and should be Few’s top choice for the perimeter defensive stopper role.

After the Zags missed out on some other point guard free agents this summer, locking down Woolridge was a huge sigh of relief. While his jump shot remains an eyesore, Woolridge has a knack for slicing into the lane, even when his defender gives him acres of airspace on the perimeter. He initiated ball screen action quite frequently playing for Grant McCasland at North Texas, something Few has begun to implement into his offense more frequently over the past few years. From a tempo perspective, the fit also seems to make sense. It was reported that Woolridge was slightly frustrated playing in a more methodical offensive system under McCasland, who prefers to play a deliberate half-court style, so I have to think Few’s fast-break friendly offense was a major selling point for Woolridge choosing Gonzaga. He’s also regarded as a plus defender, but he’ll need a smooth and efficient recovery regiment this offseason to repair a fractured knee cap suffered at the end of last season.

It’s clear Few likes having multiple point guard options, as we saw last year when he brought in Geno Crandall for insurance behind Josh Perkins, so I’d expect to see both Brock Ravet and the Frenchman Joel Ayayi get ample opportunities to push Woolridge for minutes at the point. I was irrationally high on Ayayi when he first came to the Zags back in 2017, and based on his dazzling play at the FIBA u19 tournament this summer, it appears the lightbulb has finally turned on:

Ravet’s reputation precedes himself in the state of Washington, a local high school legend who broke the state scoring record last season. He projects to be a prototypical lead guard at the next level, capable of wearing both ‘scorer’ and ‘facilitator’ hats. I’m enthralled with his mastery of change-of-pace and hesitation, which he uses to lull his defender to sleep before attacking off-the-dribble. His money move is a variation of step-backs, which he’ll use to get separation for a mid range pull-up or fade-away…

…as well as from distance…

His skill level and feel for the game are D1 ready right now, but his lack of explosiveness are why most recruiting analysts rank him outside the top-100 as a fringe 3-star / 4-star prospect. At Gonzaga, with a strong defensive fortress behind him and an abundance of offensive weapons surrounding him, the support system is in place to allow Ravet to thrive from Day 1.

Bottom Line: Unlike last season, the names and faces expected to do damage this year are unknown to most casual observers - well, for now at least. Bear in mind that Tillie was arguably the Zags best player over the final two months of the 2017-18 campaign preceding the NCAA tournament, so he’s proven he can be a cornerstone piece when healthy. Kispert’s diminishing role last season was mostly a byproduct of being leapfrogged by the surging Zach Norvell, and I have no pause about his ability to produce on a nightly basis. The freshmen may not be as glamorous as Duke or Kentucky’s blue-chip rookies, but Few brought in a crop of physically mature and polished prospects who won’t require the typical time to develop as most freshmen. Plus, the timely grad transfer additions gives Few some optionality to work with on the perimeter, which should bring stability to a revamped backcourt. The Gaels are always lurking close behind, but the WCC is still Gonzaga’s to lose and a fourth straight top-4 seed in the big dance seems inevitable.