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The Other Top 25 Preseason Rankings: No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs

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New dudes, same expectations in Spokane.

Florida State v Gonzaga
Corey Kispert drives during Gonzaga’s Sweet Sixteen win over Florida State
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

2018-19 Record: 33-4 (16-0 WCC); NCAA Tournament Elite Eight (1 seed)
Key Losses: Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke, Zach Norvell Jr., Josh Perkins, Geno Crandall, Jeremy Jones
Key Returners: Corey Kispert (Jr. F), Killian Tillie (Sr. F), Filip Petrusev (So. F), Joel Ayayi (So. G)
Key Newcomers: Admon Gilder and Ryan Woolridge (grad transfers via Texas A&M and North Texas, respectively), Anton Watson and Drew Timme (freshmen)

Gonzaga lost four starters — including the program’s all-time assist leader (Josh Perkins) and, for my money, the best player in the sport last season (Brandon Clarke). Three guys left early for the NBA, two of whom went as first round picks. According to Bart Torvik, only 13 teams in the country bring back fewer minutes than the Zags.

And yet here sits Gonzaga, at number one in the preseason.

It’s astounding, but not surprising.

The Zags have made 21 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, 11 consecutive trips to the round of 32 and five consecutive trips to the Sweet 16. No other program in the country can say the latter. Over the past decade the Zags are averaging 30.4 wins per season. Gonzaga is a juggernaut and it’s only getting stronger.

Key Non-Conference Games

For the past two decades, Mark Few and his staff have put together non-conference schedules better than just about anybody. In the early days of the Zags’ run, the program operated with an anyone, anywhere, anytime philosophy. Out of necessity, because nobody of note would willingly walk into the Kennel back then.

This year, though, North Carolina’s coming to town. I don’t care what you think about Gonzaga and the term “mid-major” the fact is that a West Coast Conference team landed a home-and-home series with the North Carolina Tar Heels. How unbelievably cool is that?

So, maybe that philosophy isn’t quite as necessary as it once was. The “anywhere” part, at least. They’re still scheduling like it is, though.

Nov. 15 at Texas A&M
Nov. 28 vs. Oregon/Seton Hall (Battle 4 Atlantis)
Nov. 29 vs. Michigan/Iowa State/Alabama/North Carolina (Battle 4 Atlantis)
Dec. 8 at Washington
Dec. 14 at Arizona
Dec. 18 vs. North Carolina

Three Things to Watch

Chemistry

A few years ago Gonzaga entered the year with a ton of new faces. The same year, Saint Mary’s brought back basically everybody from a good team. In my preseason WCC Power Rankings I put the Gaels over the Zags, largely because I thought there could be a few early hiccups for Gonzaga as the pieces all came together.

What happened instead was Gonzaga won 29 straight games to start the season. So, I’m not making that mistake again this year.

I’ll continue to believe in Mark Few’s ability to quickly build chemistry until he doesn’t. But this year’s team is operating on a more condensed timetable than that one was. Neither transfer is coming off a redshirt year. Ryan Woolridge (North Texas) and Admon Gilder (Texas A&M) are both grad transfers, immediately eligible, who arrived on campus mere months ago. And they’re the entire starting backcourt.

Just think about this: In Gonzaga’s 116-61 exhibition win over Lewis-Clark State the player with the most experience in a Gonzaga uniform was junior forward Corey Kispert.

Killian Tillie’s health

Why was Kispert the most experienced player on the floor? Because Tillie wasn’t on the floor.

The senior forward was held out as he recovers from a knee surgery he underwent early last month. It was precautionary, with the staff using the phrase “clean up” when referring to the procedure. Tillie is expected to be good to go for the season opener.

That’s huge, because the 6-foot-10 Frenchman is a legitimate NBA prospect with WCC Player of the Year potential — if he can stay healthy for the whole season.

Last season, Tillie started on the bench as he recovered from a fractured ankle. It kept him out for the entire non-conference portion of the year. He played just nine games, slowly returning to form, before finding himself sidelined again with a plantar fascia tear. As a sophomore, Tillie exploded onto the scene as a lethal shooter and averaged 12.9 points per game. As a junior, he hit double figures just three times.

All these freshmen

Once upon a time it was program policy to avoid recruiting players with offers from Pac-10 teams. It would be a waste of time and resources.

In 2017, the Zags ranked 120th nationally in recruiting, according to 247Sports. In 2018 they were 69th. This year’s class ranks 13th and contains three of the top-ten commits in program history: Drew Timme (third), Anton Watson (fourth) and Pavel Zakharov (seventh). Oh yeah, and Oumar Ballo’s in the mix too at no. 11, but we’ll have to wait until next year as he is taking an academic redshirt this season.

Timme and Watson are going to be immediate impact players. Watson, a local Gonzaga Prep product, got the start in the team’s exhibition game and showed out at the top of the Zags’ 1-2-2 press. He also led the game in scoring with 28 points, a good chunk of which came in transition off of turnovers he had forced. Timme was absolutely dominant inside with 18 points, nine rebounds and four blocks. It was an exhibition, sure, but it came against a Lewis-Clark State team that already has a D1 win to its name — please pour one out for the Idaho Vandals, who lost 88-73 at home last week.

X-Factor

Joel Ayayi

Playing on the French team at the 2019 U-19 World Cup, Ayayi averaged 20.9 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game, was named to the all-tournament team and helped France to a bronze medal finish.

But with Gonzaga last season, Ayayi averaged 1.7 points, 1.4 rebounds and 0.5 assists per game — all with 14 healthy scratches, despite a dreadfully thin backcourt.

Ayayi has been an enigma since arriving in Spokane at just 17 years of age. His first season was spent in a redshirt and his second saw him stuck to the end of the bench, and fans were left to wonder if that was based on his abilities or Mark Few’s tendency to keep a tight rotation.

Then he went and did this:

Gonzaga announced on Friday that freshman guard Brock Ravet was taking an indefinite leave from the program. Ravet is Washington’s all-time leading scorer at the high school level. He appeared ready to make the leap to college when he won the three point contest at Kraziness in the Kennel just last month.

Without Ravet, Ayayi is the only guard on scholarship coming off the bench. His time is now.