Gonzaga pretty much went unbeaten in the offseason, until Tuesday’s news that junior forward Killian Tillie will miss eight weeks with a stress fracture in his ankle.
Tillie and forward Rui Hachimura opted to return for their junior seasons without dipping a toe in the NBA Draft waters. Senior point guard Josh Perkins seems healthy after an April shoulder surgery. And the long-awaited arrival of graduate transfer Geno Crandall became official in mid-October.
Gonzaga’s outlook remains bright, even with Tillie’s absence during the meat of the nonconference schedule. No. 3 Gonzaga, without Tillie, handled No. 10 Michigan State in a closed scrimmage last Saturday.
“The sky’s the limit,” sophomore wing Zach Norvell Jr. said. “We’re still working things out, figuring out concepts, spacing, stuff like that, but I feel like we have the chemistry together.”
The Zags will have to adjust the starting lineup and rotation with Tillie sidelined. Perkins, Norvell, Hachimura and Brandon Clarke appear to be locks to start.
Playing three bigs together probably isn’t a viable option, at least until Tillie returns.
The Zags figure to go with a traditional three-guard lineup, inserting Crandall, who provides another ball-handler and playmaker. They also could go semi-big, with the 6-foot-6 Corey Kispert, a capable shooter with the muscle to battle inside, joining Perkins and Norvell.
Gonzaga’s staff doesn’t get overly concerned with the starting five, pointing out that they’re more focused on who plays in crunch time. For example, Hachimura started two games last season, but became a mainstay in close games and was often the first option on offense.
The Zags’ rotation – minus Tillie – appears to be Hachimura, Clarke, freshman Filip Petrusev and senior Jeremy Jones in the frontcourt and Perkins, Norvell, Crandall and Kispert in the backcourt.
Gonzaga has four experienced guards/wings.
Perkins is a fifth-year senior and career 39-percent 3-point shooter. Norvell is a dynamic scorer and passer who embraces taking the big shot.
Crandall posted big numbers offensively (16.6 points last season) and defensively (190 career steals) at North Dakota. Kispert was a starter prior to suffering an ankle injury last season and is making a strong bid to return to the first unit. He led GU with five 3-pointers and 24 points in a closed scrimmage against Michigan State.
“Geno has fit right in with us off the court, so we knew he would fit in with us on the court,” Perkins said. “There are 14 of us that are the same way. It’s not about you, it’s about us.”
The Zags can still operate through their bigs – like so many of their recent teams that have produced an average of 32.2 wins over the past six seasons – but will miss Tillie’s ability to stretch the floor (47.9 percent on 3-pointers last season).
Hachimura and Clarke, who sat out last season after transferring from San Jose State, will see extended minutes. Both are extremely athletic and capable of functioning on the perimeter. The two have done the majority of their damage in the paint, but they dedicated offseason work to extending their shooting range. The 6-11 Petrusev is an inside-outside threat.
Petrusev becomes the third big behind Hachimura and Clarke and should see increased minutes. Others in the mix for playing time include Jones, redshirt freshman wing Joel Ayayi and true freshman point guard Greg Foster Jr.
Jones has played in 60 games over the past two seasons. Ayayi is coming off a redshirt season and a strong performance for France in the FIBA U18 European Championships. Foster is a promising point guard who could be a redshirt candidate in a crowded backcourt.
The Zags have dominated the WCC under coach Mark Few, with 17 outright or shared titles in 19 seasons. Few is 260-30 in conference games. He enters the season as the winningest active coach nationally by percentage (.819).
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