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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Blanchette: Heavy dose of new players contributes to Zags’ season of intrigue

Center Przemek Karnowski, right, is one of the few familiar faces on Gonzaga’s 2016-17 roster. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Center Przemek Karnowski, right, is one of the few familiar faces on Gonzaga’s 2016-17 roster. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Welcome to the most anticipated Gonzaga basketball season since … well, let’s put an end to that now.

It was just two years ago that many figured the sky was the limit, and the Bulldogs managed to bump their heads on the clouds before the flight was grounded. So anticipation ruled in 2015, even beyond what it does today.

But intriguing? That fits.

Whether it follows that the 2017 Zags are intoxicating, fascinating or simply compelling remains to be seen, and the scrimmaging at Saturday’s Kraziness in the Kennel wasn’t enough to persuade one way or the other.

But the intrigue – the mystery – will linger, maybe all season.

This is what happens when nine players who have never worn the uniform before are airdropped into a program that has mostly been built on cultivating senior savvy and rewarding dues-paying.

It is, easily, the largest one-time personnel infusion in modern Gonzaga history, if you include the three transfers who had to endure their NCAA-mandated timeout last season with the six who just enrolled this year.

And the getting-to-know-you phase is going to take a good deal longer than a 20-minute run in October.

Maybe that’s why the walls-bowing crowd of 6,000-plus at the McCarthey Athletic Center took so much comfort in welcoming back Przemek Karnowski – lost for nearly all of last season after back surgery – with a standing ovation when he joined his teammates for warmups. Which the amiable giant humbly returned.

The Zags hadn’t even turned the scoreboard on yet and already they had a highlight.

There would be more.

“This whole thing,” said guard Nigel Williams-Goss, in his first public action in a year after transferring from Washington, “reminded me how fun this game is.”

Between fouls, anyway – there were 34 whistled in 20 minutes, which was probably the Kraziest part of the Kraziness. But that’s all part of the process, and as coach Mark Few pointed out, right now it’s all about process.

And processing the new guys.

On Saturday, that meant Zach Collins doing work on the glass. Johnathan Williams III and Jordan Mathews getting themselves to the foul line. Jeremy Jones wreaking a little defensive havoc. Killian Tillie looking readier to contribute than maybe expected. And Williams-Goss, who will be the fulcrum of a lot of good moments this season.

Putting all the new faces to numbers had to remind a few in attendance of a different circumstance last season, when GU had one of the shortest benches in college basketball and practiced with managers.

But that’s precisely how the Zags got here.

“It was mostly intentional,” assistant coach Tommy Lloyd said. “We knew to get the 2016 class we have now, we’d have to make sacrifices on the front end.”

So they started out in the fall of 2015 with 11 scholarship players rather than the allowable 13. Two of those – the Williamses – had to sit out. Then Karnowski’s injury subverted the strategy.

“I remember looking at UCLA when we played them in the Sweet 16 (in 2015),” Few said at one point last year, “and wondering how could they not have any guys. And suddenly, look at us – we’re them.”

It’s an odd balance. Coaches enjoy the insurance, but players don’t want to think of themselves as depth. Had GU used a couple of more scholarships last year on, well, filling the roster, it would have limited the options – and possibly cost them a recruit – in this class.

“That happens,” Few said, “when you’re recruiting at this level. It’s a dilemma that a lot of people face.

“But I don’t think we’ll do that anymore.”

Still, after some low moments, last year’s Zags played themselves into the Sweet 16. Now a new wave tries to make its mark.

For Collins, a 7-foot freshman who’ll be GU next great big man, found his first brush with the Zag experience a little breathtaking.

“I remember being on a visit here last year – and just going from that to playing in front of that crowd is pretty crazy,” he said. “They’re standing in line outside and they’re in there an hour before and they didn’t stop the whole time.”

While those fans continue to figure out who’s who, these Zags might already know who they are, in one sense.

“As confusing as it might sound, our identity is our diversity,” Williams-Goss said. “It’s how we can throw different lineups on the floor, having a ton of size, having depth in the backcourt. That’s going to give teams problems, because any night we can give you a different look.”

And more intrigue.

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