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The Other Top 25 preseason rankings: No. 2 Gonzaga Bulldogs

The Zags are absolutely loaded once again.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-West Regional-Florida State vs Gonzaga
Gonzaga head coach Mark Few.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

2017-18 Record: 32-5 (17-1 WCC), 4 seed NCAA Tournament
Key Returning Players: Josh Perkins, Killian Tillie, Rui Hachimura, Zach Norvell Jr., Corey Kispert
Key Losses: Johnathan Williams, Silas Melson
Key Newcomers: Geno Crandall (grad transfer via North Dakota), Brandon Clarke (transfer via San Jose State), Filip Petrusev

A year-and-a-half removed from the program’s first Final Four, the Zags are a trendy, and legitimate, pick to make it back again. The 2018-19 season should show just how far Gonzaga basketball has come over the past two decades. This is a program that has become so good that it returns just one starter (Josh Perkins) who played in the 2017 National Championship game but manages to earn a preseason No. 3 ranking in the AP Poll. This is mind-boggling, considering freshman forward Filip Petrusev hadn’t been born when Gonzaga burst onto the scene with a run to the 1999 Elite Eight.

Last year’s team put together a 32-win season that was capped with the program’s fourth straight trip to the Sweet Sixteen. The Zags lost two starters, but bring back basically everyone else.

Expectations are higher than ever for the team from Spokane. There’s plenty of talent — both returning and incoming — and an early season stretch of games that should put to bed, once and for all, the “Gonzaga doesn’t play anybody” complaint that idiots love to throw around online.

Key Non-Conference Games

Nov. 15 vs. Texas A&M
Gonzaga’s first game in front of a national television audience. Enough said.

Nov. 19-21 (Maui Invitational)
Illinois first, then Arizona or Iowa State, with a shot at No. 11 Auburn or No. 4 Duke in the finale. This field is loaded.

Dec. 1 at Creighton
This is the kind of home-and-home series college basketball needs more of.

Dec. 5 vs. No. 25 Washington
This too. After a decade off, these in-state rivals rekindled their series a couple years ago. The Huskies are good again and bragging rights aren’t the only thing on the line for the two teams.

Dec. 9 vs. No. 6 Tennessee (in Phoenix)
Gonzaga has a good track record against SEC opposition in Phoenix. But the Vols aren’t some plucky South Carolina squad.

Dec. 15 at No. 8 North Carolina
Okay, this is the kind of home-and-home series college basketball needs more of: a 2017 National Championship rematch.

Three Things to Watch

The second unit

Last year, Rui Hachimura and Corey Kispert who came off the bench for Mark Few’s team. Hachimura was simply the odd man out in a frontcourt that featured Killian Tillie and current L.A. Laker Johnathan Williams. Kispert was a starter until an ankle injury sidelined him long enough for Zach Norvell Jr. to grab hold of the starting spot.

But this year’s team is more talented than last year’s. Mark Few is going to have to bring two guys off the bench who would be likely starters on any other team in America.

Will it be Geno Crandall, a grad transfer from North Dakota who averaged 16.6 points and 3.6 assists per game last season? Or will it be forward Brandon Clarke? Before transferring from San Jose State, Clarke was named First Team all-Mountain West after putting up 17.3 points and 8.7 rebounds per game as a sophomore.

Or maybe it’s Hachimura again. Even though the 6-foot-8 forward from Japan is generating a ton of NBA buzz, it might be best to bring him off the bench. He was dominant as a sixth man last season, and it hasn’t seemed to hurt his draft stock. Perhaps it’s Kispert, who seems to be the overlooked piece to Gonzaga’s puzzle.

Regardless, there will be no let-up when Gonzaga makes substitutions. Gonzaga will put a lot of games away with bench players in the fray.

Spacing and shooting

Gonzaga used to be the archetypal mid-major team. The Zags, with guards like Dan Dickau, Blake Stepp and Kevin Pangos, lived by the three. But lately it’s been all about the big men — from Elias Harris and Kelly Olynyk, through Przemek Karnowski, Domantas Sabonis, Zach Collins and Johnathan Williams, to today’s crop with Rui, Clarke and Tillie.

With bigs like that, the Zags don’t need to live and die by the three. Instead, they just make the three. Last season Josh Perkins hit 83 of them on 39.3% shooting. Norvell drained 77 (37%), Tillie hit 45 (47.9%) and Kispert connected on 40 (35.1%).

Having a post presence like this to has allowed Mark Few to run beautifully spaced offensive sets that allow guys to get great open looks from deep. And there are a lot of dudes on this roster who will make you pay if you give them space behind the arc.

Perfectly boring defense

The Zags have ranked among the top-30 nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rating each of the past six seasons. Before that, the Zags managed a top-30 finish just once (2008-09). Any idea what happened six seasons ago? The Zags earned the program’s first 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament. An elite offensive team commits to defense and goes from mid-major darling to perennial powerhouse.

The team that made the title game in 2017 ranked No. 1 overall, and last season the Zags finished 18th.

This isn’t “Press Virginia.” It’s not slow-enough-to-lose-to-a-16-seed Virginia. There’s no gimmick. Looking at the stats, nothing really jumps off the page. It’s not shot blocking. It’s not steals. Yet, this program has found an identity on the defensive end: discipline.

Teams don’t get assists as often against Gonzaga. They don’t shoot the ball as well against Gonzaga. For years now the Zags have been rotating, switching, closing out and clogging lanes on everybody. And they’ve found great success in doing so.

Yeah, it might not be as obvious or exciting as Sagaba Konate blocking everything within a mile of the rim. But, for the past two years, it’s actually been more efficient (per KenPom) than Konate’s Mountaineers.

You won’t notice. Sure, Rui and Tillie will get some nice blocks. Perkins and Norvell will pick some pockets. Kispert and Clarke will crash the glass like they want to kill somebody. But just watch. It’s beautiful.

X-Factor

On a team with NBA talent (Tillie, Hachimura and Norvell) veteran guards (Perkins and Crandall) and exciting new big men (Clarke and Petrusev) it might seem like sophomore Corey Kispert is destined to be a role player.

But the Washington native turned down offers from Virginia and Notre Dame to attend Gonzaga, which is to say he’s certainly no scrub. In fact, Kispert was a starter for the first seven games last season. He played 46 minutes in a double-overtime loss to Florida and 38 in an overtime win against Texas in the PK80. Who knows how long he would have held onto that job had he not injured his ankle.

Whether he returns to the starting lineup this year or continues coming off the bench, Kispert will be a sparkplug on the wing. The 6-foot-6, 215 pound small forward is a solid three point shooter and strong finisher around the rim with a knack for crashing the glass. He was the Zags’ best rebounder from the backcourt last season, especially on the offensive end, aking him reminiscent of former Gonzaga glue guy extraordinaire Mike Hart. Except, unlike Hart, Kispert (6.7 ppg) is a capable scorer as well.

Kispert’s college trajectory appears to be heading for something almost unheard of anymore. He was a day-one starter as a freshman, at an elite program, who will probably stick around for a full, four-year career.