It wasn’t naive to think Gonzaga’s coaching staff would have some tough decisions on the horizon when it came to the starting lineup, and perhaps to a greater extent, which players would get a bulk of the minutes off the Bulldogs’ bench this season.
If the first two public viewing opportunities have demonstrated anything, it’s that those decisions could be more challenging than expected.
Gonzaga rolled out a starting five of Andrew Nembhard, Rasir Bolton, Julian Strawther, Drew Timme and Chet Holmgren in Sunday’s exhibition rout of Eastern Oregon. There’s a strong chance the Bulldogs will use the same opening unit when the stakes get higher and the opponents come from the Big 12, ACC and Pac-12, rather than the NAIA’s Cascade Collegiate Conference.
But Gonzaga may still take advantage of one more opportunity to iron things out in an exhibition setting, against an opponent from the CCC, when the top-ranked Bulldogs host regional NAIA foe Lewis-Clark State at 6 p.m. Friday at McCarthey Athletic Center.
LCSC, a perennial contender at the NAIA level which has won at least 20 games in 15 of the past 20 seasons, should be equipped to push the Bulldogs more than Eastern Oregon after winning its first three regular-season games by an average of 44.7 points. Still, Gonzaga won’t be too concerned by the size of the number on their end of the scoreboard, as the Bulldogs continue to experiment with lineup rotations they might trot out in the regular season.
“It was good to circle through some different lineups and see some different combinations that we wanted, who can’t always play together in practice,” said assistant Brian Michaelson, currently GU’s acting head coach, after Sunday’s 115-62 win over Eastern Oregon.
Despite Holmgren’s rookie status and Strawther’s inexperience relative to other players on the roster, it’s hard to build a more veteran lineup with Gonzaga’s 12 scholarship players than the one the Bulldogs used versus EOU. Combined, Timme, Nembhard and Bolton have 247 college basketball games under their belt, with the transfer guards having played more than 80 apiece.
GU’s starting five jumped out to a 13-3 lead in less than 4 minutes before the Bulldogs made their first substitutions. By the time Ben Gregg entered with 4:18 left in the first half, every available scholarship player had seen floor time. Nolan Hickman registered a team-high 25 minutes and Bolton played 22, but eight other Bulldogs logged between 13 and 19 minutes, giving coaches ample opportunities to see players in various lineups.
“Not yet,” Michaelson said when asked if coaches had landed on a rotation, or multiple rotations, they liked more than others. “I think we’re still circling through that and need to look at the film, but we got through them all. I think we got where everybody played with everybody else. Which again, in practice you try, but when you have to go with two teams, it’s not as easy as it is in the game.
“I thought it was good to get a chance to see all those guys play and now obviously we have film of it and we can not only see which ones we like, but you’ve got to do some different things with different lineups and now you can start to progress down that line. What works the best for different lineups.”
It’s likely one of the lineups used by LCSC on Friday will include Sam Stockton, a second-year freshman guard from Gonzaga Prep and the youngest child of former Gonzaga and Utah Jazz great John Stockton. Sam, a former high school teammate of GU’s Watson, is averaging just over 16 minutes per game to go with 7.3 points and 3.7 assists. He’s been an efficient option off the bench for fourth-year coach Austin Johnson, making 9 of 12 field goals to open the season.
LCSC’s roster also features Teagen Hoard, a freshman guard from Central Valley who’s averaging 6.0 points, 3.7 assists and 3.6 rebounds in 14.3 minutes per game.
The Warriors’ coaching staff includes CJ Johnson, a former Clarkston High standout who led the Bantams to a State 2A championship in 2016 before spending his next four years in Spokane at Division III Whitworth.
Gonzaga has won its past three exhibitions against LCSC by scores of 116-61, 83-31 and 85-48.
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