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Gonzaga in familiar role as favorite; Killian Tillie lone Zag named to preseason All-WCC team

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 3, 2019, 6:13 p.m.

The question wasn’t if Gonzaga would be the favorite in the West Coast Conference preseason poll. The question was how close the voting tally would be with rival Saint Mary’s poised to challenge for the top spot.

The answer: Gonzaga received seven of 10 first-place votes (coaches cannot pick their own team) while the Gaels had three. GU earned 79 points to the 75 of Saint Mary’s.

BYU (65 points), Pepperdine (56) and Santa Clara (50) rounded out the top five, followed by San Francisco and Loyola Marymount. Pacific and San Diego shared eighth place and Portland was picked 10th.

The Zags return just four players from last year’s 33-win team. They added graduate transfer guards in Admon Gilder and Ryan Woolridge to go with six freshmen in a highly rated recruiting class.

“I don’t know if we’ve ever been in this situation before,” GU coach Mark Few said. “We’ve usually always had a slight majority of experienced returning guys more so than newcomers, but this year it’s totally different. Corey (Kispert) and Killian (Tillie) are really the only ones that played extended minutes.

“We’re as new as we’ve ever been. There’s a lot of teaching and going back over things.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the WCC tip-off event Thursday at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas was senior forward Killian Tillie being the lone Zag on the preseason All-WCC team. That’s a first since the debut of the preseason team in 2008-09, according to a WCC spokesperson.

“Killian is a fantastic player,” Few said. “I’m hoping he can stay healthy all year and show everybody what he’s all about. Everything goes better when he’s out there. He made 13 3s in a row (actually 11 at the 2018 WCC Tournament). You don’t see that in practice.”

Saint Mary’s (Jordan Ford, Malik Fitts), BYU (Yoeli Childs, TJ Haws) and Pepperdine (Colbey Ross, Kessler Edwards) had two representatives. Santa Clara’s Tahj Eaddy, San Francisco’s Charles Minlend and Pacific’s Jahlil Tripp also made the 10-player team.

Gonzaga has had at least two selections every year and four players were chosen in 2013 and 2019. Freshmen and transfers aren’t eligible for the team, but the Zags have candidates in junior forward Corey Kispert, a returning starter who averaged 8 points in 2019, and sophomore forward Filip Petrusev, who averaged 6.5 points but figures to move into a starting role.

“Filip is primed for a good year,” Few said. “When Killian was out (with injuries) last year, we went to him at some very critical times and he had some big plays in the Duke game and played big minutes in the Tennessee game.”

One of safest bets in the sporting world is projecting Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s, usually finishing in that order, to battle for WCC supremacy. Gonzaga has been the preseason favorite every season since 2002 with the exception of 2018. GU edged preseason favorite Saint Mary’s by one game to win the 2018 regular-season title.

The Zags have won or shared seven consecutive WCC titles and 18 in Few’s 20 seasons as head coach. The Gaels have sprinkled in three titles (one solo in 2012) with 11 second-place finishes over the last 16 seasons.

Gonzaga has been rated in the bottom half of the top 10 in most national preseason polls. The Gaels are in the 17-25 range in at least three polls. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi’s latest bracketology lists Gonzaga seeded third and Saint Mary’s fifth.

Saint Mary’s returns 12 lettermen and four starters, including a WCC Player of the Year candidate in Ford, who averaged 21.2 points last season.

The Gaels have experience with nine juniors/seniors and size with 7-foot-3 Aaron Menzies, 7-1 Jock Perry, 6-10 Matthias Tass and the 6-8 Fitts, who contributed 15.2 points and 7.6 rebounds last season.

Saint Mary’s finished 22-12 last year but shocked No. 1-ranked Gonzaga in the WCC Tournament championship game and nearly knocked off Villanova in the NCAA Tournament.

“Doing that gives your team, your program, the whole group a ton of confidence,” coach Randy Bennett said. “That’s the true value of last year moving forward.”

BYU’s offseason optimism has dimmed with Childs’ suspension for the first nine games, Gavin Baxter’s shoulder injury and guard Nick Emery’s retirement.

Pepperdine and Santa Clara appear to be on the rise, with the Waves considered the most likely contender to crack the ‘Big Three’ of Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and BYU.

The Zags stage Kraziness in the Kennel on Saturday, the first opportunity for the public to see the 2020 team. Gonzaga takes on Michigan State in a closed-door scrimmage on Oct. 19 in Denver before entertaining Lewis-Clark State on Nov. 1 for an exhibition game.

The regular-season opener is Nov. 5 versus Alabama State.

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