Welcome Back, Basketball: Gonzaga Bulldogs

Welcome to Palestra Back’s Season Preview! All week we’ll be highlighting some of the most fascinating teams in college basketball. These are the best teams or the highest ranked teams, just the handful that we think you’ll want to have an extra eye on over the next few months. 

Why Do We Care?

Because I care! I’m a lifelong Zags fan, still recovering from last year’s title game loss.

And as America’s premier mid-major program, having finally crested the biggest speed bump in program history by reaching the Final Four, the Zags are among the most interesting stories in college hoops. Tons of talent headed out the door and questions remain about what’s left in the cupboard.

Who is Gone?

Nigel Williams-Goss was arguably the nation’s most complete point guard last season. He made shots, created offense, and defended his position expertly for Mark Few’s team. He was the cornerstone of the Zags’ run to the National Final.

After seemingly decades at Gonzaga, Przemek Karnowski has graduated. The mountain of a man used his size (and sneaky soft touch) to control the paint for Gonzaga during his career. He was joined last season by one-year wonder Zach Collins, a firecracker big man off the bench for the Bulldogs.

Transferred sharp-shooter Jordan Matthews graduated after one memorable season. In all, the Zags lose four of their most valued players from last season.

Who is Back?

Four contributors from last year’s team remain in Spokane. Guards Silas Melson and Josh Perkins have each experienced highs and lows in their time in the Gonzaga lineup. Melson is now a senior and Perkins a junior. Both can now be expected to bring an upperclassman presence and run the show for the Zags. We’ve seen each of them make open shots, but now they’ll need to be the straws that stir the drink for Mark Few’s system.

Athletic power forward Johnathan Williams will lead Gonzaga in the paint. His energy and above-the-rim style challenges opposing bigs to respond on a nightly basis. He’s joined in the frontcourt by sophomore Killian Tillie, who struggled at times last season, though showed promise in the NCAA Tournament. He’ll feel more comfortable next to Williams than he ever did next to a bruiser like Karnowski or an all-round star like Collins.

Who is New?

We’ll cheat a bit here, highlighting a player who was on last year’s Gonzaga team, but played merely 130 minutes all season. Sophomore swingman Rui Hachimura has the tools to be a very intriguing player for the Bulldogs. His body and athleticism already have him on the radar of NBA scouts. Now he slides into the starting lineup and has big shoes to fill. Last season, he was hardly expected to even be eligible to play, with a language barrier and the culture shock of coming to the United States from his native Japan. With another year under his belt, he’s expected to be a major contributor. He showcased his skills at this past summer’s FIBA U-19 World Cup. Hachimura averaged 20.6 points and 11.0 rebounds for a Japanese squad that went 1-4 in the tournament. Both of those numbers ranked in the top three in the tournament. His best performance came in the knockout round, when he notched 22 points and 14 rebounds, in a game where Japan only scored 55 total points as a team.

Redshirt freshman Zach Norvell is also expected to fill in some of the holes left by key departures for this team. The Chicago-bred product comes from the same high school as Jabari Parker and Derrick Rose. He redshirted due to knee issues last season, but spent that time with the team, learning Mark Few’s system.

Rankings Rundown

AP Poll: #18

Coaches Poll: #19

KenPom: #20

Pretty consistent placement in the preseason rankings for the Zags. Most notably: Gonzaga kicks the season off ranked higher in each of those metrics than hated WCC rival St. Mary’s. The Gaels have a strong team returning, with eyes on the Zags’ crown.

Big Games on the Schedule

Quite a few doozies on the slate here. Ohio State at midnight on Thanksgiving night. Villanova at Madison Square Garden in the Jimmy V Classic. On the road at Washington and San Diego State.

And make sure to circle both games against St. Mary’s: January 18 and February 10.

****

Header image via Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, SALTMoney.org, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. If you have any suggestions, tips, ideas, or questions, email them to palestraback@gmail.com

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