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Retooled Gonzaga not looking in rear-view mirror entering 2017-18 season

Among the players Gonzaga is counting on this season are returnees, from left, Silas Melson, Rui Hachimura, Johnathan Williams, Killian Tillie and Josh Perkins. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Among the players Gonzaga is counting on this season are returnees, from left, Silas Melson, Rui Hachimura, Johnathan Williams, Killian Tillie and Josh Perkins. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Established veterans Johnathan Williams, Josh Perkins, Silas Melson and Killian Tillie. Promising talents Corey Kispert, Rui Hachimura, Jacob Larsen, Zach Norvell Jr., Jeremy Jones, Jesse Wade and Joel Ayayi.

Those are the key names on Gonzaga’s roster for the 2018 season.

The preceding was offered as a public-service announcement since virtually every offseason article in the Websphere centered on who’s no longer around following last year’s 37-2 campaign.

To recap the departures: Nigel Williams-Goss, All-American guard and WCC player of the year; Przemek Karnowski, winner of the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award as the nation’s top center; Zach Collins, NBA lottery pick and GU’s first one-and-done player; and Jordan Mathews, whose clutch 3-pointer against West Virginia ranks among the biggest shots in program history.

“That’s the nature of the beast at Gonzaga. Last year, I remember reading a deal on us and for the first time we lost two NBA guys in (Kyle) Wiltjer and (Domantas) Sabonis,” coach Mark Few said. “It’s a great opportunity for J3 (Williams), Tillie, Perkins, Silas and then we have some other guys coming up the ranks.

“We’re counting on (Hachimura) to step in and help us. We’re banking on (Larsen) to really contribute. Norvell is going to have to play significant minutes. Certainly we have to play a little differently because we’re not as big and bulky but that will be a fun challenge for the players and staff.”

The exodus of four standouts and the absence of a high-profile transfer or two joining the lineup has created a bit of angst among some Zag faithful this autumn.

“It’s natural, human nature,” assistant coach Tommy Lloyd said. “This team is being evaluated against last year’s team, which isn’t fair. We consider every season to be its own.

“This team has some really talented pieces and some guys that are ready to step up. This team has to create its own identity and how it wants to play.”

That could include more open-court opportunities with mobile, athletic bigs Williams, Tillie and Hachimura. Or small-ball with a three-guard alignment of Perkins, Melson and Norvell. Or going bigger with 6-foot-8 Hachimura or 6-6 Kispert handling the wing.

The presence of several new faces in the rotation doesn’t lower the team’s expectations.

“We made it that far (last season) but we came up a little short,” Perkins said. “We’re taking that momentum from last year and carrying it into this year. We have even bigger chips on our shoulders. I’m glad we made it that far, but we’ve got other things coming.”

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Player to watch

Johnathan Williams tested the NBA Draft waters last summer before deciding to return to Gonzaga for his senior season. The 6-foot-9 forward is a unique talent. He’s a high-level rebounder, a capable finisher and he’s athletic enough to defend multiple positions, as demonstrated by his quality work on Xavier wing Trevon Bluiett and South Dakota State post Mike Daum in the NCAA Tournament.

Williams was part of GU’s four-man interior rotation last year but the Zags will rely more on the bouncy, 230-pound Memphis native this season. His 2017 averages of 10.2 points and 6.4 rebounds should climb and approach double-double territory.

The left-handed Williams wants to improve numerous aspects of his game after hearing feedback from his NBA workouts.

“Being a force down low,” he said. “Also working on my outside shot to get it more consistent. You saw me bring the ball upcourt (at Kraziness in the Kennel), I’m starting to work on that aspect of it but also don’t forget what I’m good at, which is rebounding and finishing around the basket.”

Williams made 59.2 percent from the field and 40 percent of 40 3-point attempts last season.

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Key games

Gonzaga’s scheduling philosophy rarely deviates from year to year, loading up in the nonconference to bolster its resume in the eyes of the NCAA selection committee.

This year, the Zags will be tested from November through February. They’ll take part in one of the biggest tournaments ever, the PK80 Invitational in Portland over the Thanksgiving holiday. GU opens against Ohio State and then could potentially face preseason No. 7 Florida and No. 1 Duke.

December will be a challenging month, beginning with Creighton’s visit on Dec. 1. The Bluejays made the NCAA Tournament last season and return Marcus Foster, one of the top guards in the country. The Zags take on No. 6 Villanova, four-time defending Big East champions and the 2016 national champs, on Dec. 5 in New York City.

Gonzaga faces road games against Washington on Dec. 10 and San Diego State on Dec. 21, two teams the Zags crushed at home last season.

The conference slate has a twist with Saint Mary’s regarded as the unanimous favorite, according to the WCC coaches’ poll. The Zags and Gaels clash Jan. 18 in Spokane and Feb. 10 in Moraga.

Gonzaga has dropped one regular-season game to BYU each of the last four seasons. The teams collide Feb. 3 in Spokane and Feb. 24 in Provo, Utah, in the regular-season finale.

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WCC prediction

➤ 1. Gonzaga

2. Saint Mary’s

3. San Francisco

4. BYU

5. Santa Clara

6. San Diego

7. Pepperdine

8. Portland

9. Pacific

10. LMU


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