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Frighteningly young: Talented group of Gonzaga newcomers tackle swift learning curve

Head coach Mark Few settled on “new guys” when describing essentially three-fourths of Gonzaga’s 2019-20 roster.

That phrase covers six highly decorated freshmen and graduate transfers Admon Gilder and Ryan Woolridge. The latter two have played more college basketball than anyone on the roster, just not in Zag uniforms.

“We’re really counting on those two grad transfers,” Few said of the probable starting backcourt tandem.

And the Zags are counting on contributions of varying degrees from perhaps three or four freshmen who helped comprise the 13th-ranked recruiting class in the country, according to 247sports.

With Gonzaga seeing more players exit early for NBA, roster churn is becoming more commonplace.

“This is how college basketball is these days,” assistant coach Tommy Lloyd said. “Sometimes your best players are going to leave, whether you want them to or not.

“So far we’re pretty happy. I enjoy going to practice and it’s been fun watching guys like Anton (Watson) finally get his chance and show he’s ready to play at this level, and Drew (Timme) that picked our program over a lot of other ones.”

Still, it’s not an easy transition going from prep standout to immediate contributor on a preseason a top-10 squad that faces a stellar Battle 4 Atlantis field and December dates against Washington, Arizona and North Carolina.

It helps that Watson, Timme and guard Brock Ravet played for successful high school programs and strong AAU teams, and Pavel Zakharov (Russia) and Martynas Arlauskas (Lithuania) have extensive experience on their respective youth national teams.

“It’s a lot different from high school, but I think it’s a challenge all the freshmen, including myself, are willing to step up to,” said Watson, who led Gonzaga Prep to a pair of 4A state championships.

Watson added that the biggest difference is “probably just the physicality in practice and other teams are going to be quicker, the pace of the game (faster) and everyone is a lot stronger.”

“The coaches have been great and so have the older guys, especially (Killian) Tillie and Corey (Kispert),” Timme said earlier this month. “They’ve really been teaching us because it’s a lot, it’s a lot getting thrown at you early and you have to be on it. Now we’re starting to get comfortable.”

Watson has stepped in at the ‘4’ with Tillie sidelined by knee surgery. The 6-foot-10, 235-pound Timme should be a regular in the rotation. Another option is the 6-11, 235-pound Zakharov. Incoming freshman center Oumar Ballo would have been another option, but he was declared an academic redshirt by the NCAA on Monday. He won’t play in games, but remains on scholarship and can practice with the team.

Ravet, the all-time leading scorer in Washington prep history, is expected to see time as a backup guard.

Gonzaga has utilized true freshmen throughout its rise to national prominence and several cracked the starting lineup over the past decade: Elias Harris (2010), Gary Bell Jr. and Kevin Pangos in 2012 and current Zag Corey Kispert, who started the first seven games two seasons ago before suffering an ankle injury.

More often, freshmen have come off the bench, including the run of talented big men Kelly Olynyk, Przemek Karnowski, Domantas Sabonis, Zach Collins, Rui Hachimura and Tillie. Four of those players were NBA lottery picks.

“I just try to tell them every day to focus on something you’re not good at, and focus on what the coaches are telling you to do and get better at that,” said Bell, now a Gonzaga grad assistant. “Once you get better at that, you can focus on the next thing. You’re learning on the fly, everything is pretty new and you have to stay confident.

“You’re messing up in practice a lot and the coaches are on you, but think of it as a learning experience and not that they’re mad at me.”

There are bound to be plenty of ups and downs.

“They’re super talented and clearly want it. They’re all gym rats, all run around in a pack together, whether it’s going to class or getting food or working out,” Kispert said of the freshmen. “We’ll finish up practice and it’s, ‘Wow, we look pretty good.’ We’ll also finish up a practice and it’s, ‘Wow, do we even know each other?’ But every day we’re getting better and making huge leaps toward getting better.”

The Michigan State scrimmage on Oct. 19 boosted confidence, but the learning process never stops. Watson said the freshmen rely on instruction from the coaching staff and returning players.

“The guys that have been around know coach Few and the assistant coaches and they’ve helped us with the offense and how practice is going to be,” Watson said. “They’re helping slow the process.

“At first it was kind of tough because it was coming so fast, but once you get used to it, it’s a smooth offense. I think it’s going to work out if we just stay focused on the plan.”

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