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Gonzaga’s underclassmen impress in season opening victory over Texas Southern

Freshmen and sophomores didn’t steal the show in Spokane, but they proved Gonzaga’s got enough to be elite once again.

Texas Southern v Gonzaga
Freshman forward Corey Kispert had a strong first game for Gonzaga.
Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

This Gonzaga Bulldogs team looks very different than the one we watched play into April last season.

Mark Few lost three starters from last year’s team, and there’s no group of experienced, high-major transfers ready to be plugged into his rotation this time around. Instead, Few will be relying on a bunch of underclassmen to fill in the holes around all-WCC returning starters Josh Perkins (20 points) and Johnathan Williams (16 points, 8 rebounds).

Gonzaga’s starting lineup included two underclassmen: Freshman Corey Kispert (10 points) and sophomore Killian Tillie (9 points). Leading the charge off the bench was sophomore Rui Hachimura (11 points) and redshirt freshman Zach Norvell Jr. (5 points).

That quartet accounted for 36% of Gonzaga’s scoring in the 97-69 season-opening victory over the Texas Southern Tigers. It’s time to get to know them.

Corey Kispert

It’s not a surprise that Kispert is good. As a four-star recruit from Edmonds, Washington, Kispert received offers from Virginia and Notre Dame, as well as Gonzaga. The surprise is that he is this good this early. Kispert missed the end of his senior season due to a broken foot suffered in early February.

Here in early November the 6-foot-6, 215 pound forward looked as strong and agile as ever. He’s a bruiser in the paint with some serious athletic ability and great touch. He took the lid off the Zags’ basket with an emphatic dunk at the 18:18 mark. Kispert also showed his range by going 2-4 from three point land. His 10 points are the most by a Gonzaga freshman in a season-opener since Domantas Sabonis (14 points) at the start of the 2014-15 season.

Killian Tillie

The flying Frenchman — Tillie’s family is loaded with high-level basketball and volleyball athletes — was the Gonzaga’s eighth man last season. Tillie got the start tonight and played 24 minutes, twice his average from last season. Despite being a long and athletic stretch-four, Tillie spent most of his time in the paint on Friday. He led the team with 12 rebounds, two of which he put back for points. One more bucket and he’d have had a double-double. Next game, probably.

Rui Hachimura

Despite playing just 128 minutes as a freshman Hachimura is being touted as the best NBA prospect Japan has ever produced. For now though, people like Yahoo’s Jeff Eisenberg are predicting a breakout sophomore season. Hachimura scored a career high 11 points in 18 minutes off the bench — he started, over Killian Tillie, in Gonzaga’s lone exhibition game. But his tantalizing raw talent still needs to be honed in. Mark Few called Hachimura’s performance a microcosm of the team as a whole. He had his ups (dunks) and his downs (fouls). The real takeaway should be that this was the most competitive, non-garbage time collegiate game action Hachimura has been in. There was no dip in fire or efficiency despite the increase in workload.non-

Zach Norvell Jr.

Norvell turned a lot of heads when he landed on the preseason Julius Erving Award watch list last month, despite being a redshirt freshman who had never played a collegiate game. Zag fans had seen glimpses — before putting on a redshirt Norvell went for 18 points in last season’s exhibition against West Georgia — but similar to Hachimura, there was no telling if he was ready for competitive action in prime time. And even after Friday night it might still be too soon to tell.

His offensive rating of 97 was the worst among Bulldogs who spent at least 10 minutes on the floor, which was a product of a very streaky shot (2-8 FG). Even still, he looked calm and composed on the court and dished out five assists, the game high.