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Sports >  NCAA basketball

Five-star feast: Gonzaga shows its recruiting chops with McDonald’s All-Americans Chet Holmgren, Hunter Sallis and Nolan Hickman

UPDATED: Fri., Nov. 5, 2021

Six of the program’s top nine recruits since 2000 occupy Gonzaga’s roster this season. Or, if you prefer, nine of the top 20.

Remember, too, that standout point guard Jalen Suggs left GU after one season for the NBA and No. 12 Pavel Zakharov and No. 18 Oumar Ballo transferred to other Division I programs.

Senior guard Andrew Nembhard’s .9926 rating, according to 247sports, when he committed to Florida in 2018 would put him in a tie with freshman Hunter Sallis at No. 3 on Gonzaga’s top 20. Iowa State transfer Rasir Bolton’s .8921 rating in 2018 would put him between No. 41 Kyle Dranginis and No. 42 Greg Foster Jr.

Add in junior forward Martynas Arlauskas at No. 29 and all 12 scholarship players on this year’s team rank in the program’s top 42.

That collection of talent helps explain Gonzaga reaching last year’s national championship game and starting this season at No. 1 in the Associated Press preseason poll for the second straight year.

It also represents an evolution in Gonzaga’s recruiting.

“In their lifetimes we’ve literally never missed an NCAA Tournament and in their formative years we’ve literally played in at least every second weekend (of the tournament),” Zags assistant coach Brian Michaelson said. “The kids we’re recruiting are 16, 17, born in 2004 or 2005, all they know is Gonzaga as a national power. Most of their parents only know Gonzaga being in the NCAA Tournament every year.”

Ask Michaelson how and why Gonzaga has taken a big step forward in recruiting in recent years and prepare to hear much of the program’s pitch to prospects.

He hits all the high points, and there’s so many it takes a while for the ninth-year assistant to recite all of them.

“Success on the court, the Final Fours, the winning, the historical numbers, amount of No. 1 seeds, the RPI, the NET,” Michaelson begins. “Style of play, guys want to play fast and in ball screens. We’ve led the country in scoring multiple years in a row. The efficiency.

“We’re usually at the top of the country in ball screens. Guys like the way we share the ball, the chemistry and the culture we have. And obviously, the proof that you can come here and be drafted in the lottery, top 10, top five.”

Wait, there’s more.

“From a scheduling and television standpoint, it’s at the peak,” said Michaelson, noting November games against Texas, UCLA and Duke, and Gonzaga routinely playing in premier holiday tournaments like the Maui Invitational and Battle 4 Atlantis. “Coach (Mark Few) is a Hall of Famer, he works with USA Basketball, he covers each box you can think about checking. And the guys that are here love it. They hear from Corey (Kispert) and Jalen (Suggs) what a special place this is.”

It’s been a steady rise in Few’s 22 seasons at the helm as the Zags scaled the ladder from NCAA Tournament party crashers to tourney regulars to consistent championship contenders.

ESPN director of national recruiting Paul Biancardi said the first step was becoming a consistent winner in Few’s early years and the program started to take off with talented international imports.

“When I was in coaching, Gonzaga was a name you were concerned about when you had to play them,” said Biancardi, who has been at ESPN for 13 years. “They were going to places others weren’t going as much and getting really good players on the international scene.

“Then the last five or so years, they’re getting really good talent from the States and you combine that all together and the culmination was the 2017 Final Four. I’ve been to a Final Four. Once you go to a Final Four it really helps recruiting down the road, not necessarily that next year but in the future. And when you get to that level it starts to attract the five-stars, the top 100s, the transfers.”

Gonzaga’s past three recruiting classes – 13th in 2019, sixth in 2020 and third in 2021, according to 247sports – rank as the highest in program history. That doesn’t factor in grad transfers that have been impactful essentially every season since Byron Wesley helped the 2015 team reach the Elite Eight.

And it doesn’t factor in sit-out transfers such as Kyle Wiltjer (Kentucky), Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington), Johnathan Williams (Missouri) and Brandon Clarke (San Jose State).

The Zags’ 2021 class – Chet Holmgren, Hunter Sallis, former Kentucky commit Nolan Hickman and Kaden Perry – is ranked ahead of blue bloods Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina and Kansas. GU’s 2020 and 2019 classes trailed Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina.

“They’re not competing with them, they’re beating them,” ESPN college basketball analyst Sean Farnham said. “When you look at what Mark has been able to build over a sustained period of time in Spokane, that once they get over this hurdle of winning a national championship – and it will happen – when it does happen, it’ll even put it more in another stratosphere.

“The most remarkable component of what Gonzaga’s been able to accomplish, or the most impressive component of what Gonzaga has accomplished during my 11 years of covering that conference at ESPN, has been the fact this program continues to recruit at a high level.”

Biancardi underscored the importance of the Zags’ approach to recruiting, whether it’s a top-10 high school player or a grad transfer.

“They do a really good job of knowing which players to get involved in,” he said. “They find out who fits their culture, who fits in with their players and on campus. It’s the right type of talent. One of the keys to recruiting: it’s not who you get all the time, it’s how you evaluate.”

Gonzaga’s style of play, fast pace and efficiency featuring versatile guards and bigs is a major selling point.

“For each kid I’m sure it’s different,” Michaelson said. “For me, I’d want to play in a fun style that fits the way the NBA is playing, more spread out and playing fast.”

The Zags probably won’t recruit globally as much as they did when Tommy Lloyd was on the coaching staff. Lloyd, now the head coach at Arizona, was largely responsible for GU’s international pipeline.

“Roger (Powell Jr., assistant coach) does (recruit overseas) so there’ll still be some involvement,” Michaelson said. “I don’t think it will ever reach where it was at one point where we’re talking about half the roster.”

Suggs joined Collins as Gonzaga’s only one-and-done freshmen, but his influence on the program’s recruiting continues. Suggs and Holmgren were high school and AAU teammates.

On the day Sallis committed to Gonzaga, he said he was impressed watching Suggs seamlessly fit with the Zags last season.

“That was also a big part of it,” Sallis said of his decision.

“The gift that keeps giving, that’s a great way to phrase it,” Biancardi said of Suggs. “You have to win but you also have to have talent that succeeds. When guys come in and get the accolades, all-conference, All-America, get drafted, other players look at them and say, “You know what, I have a game similar to his. I can go to that program.’ They take notice.”

Some blue blood programs have relied on one-and-done talent but their rosters usually don’t include many older players – a key to Gonzaga’s success for two-plus decades and for numerous recent national championship teams.

Is it a slippery slope if Gonzaga continues landing one-and-dones and moves away from what’s been the program’s backbone for so long?

“No,” Farnham said. “I’ve talked to every Gonzaga player that’s walked through those doors and I will tell you they all understand the program is bigger than them.

“So it doesn’t matter whether you’re recruiting five-stars or three-stars. It doesn’t matter whether or not it’s a five-star transfer (from) a Power Five conference when he comes onto campus and all of a sudden goes, ‘Hold on, so this is what it’s supposed to be like?’ Because the experience itself and the place itself is different.”

Asked if recruiting is easier now than when he was promoted to assistant nine years ago, Michaelson said, “It’s just different. It’s really hard no matter what level you’re at, team 350 or team 1. It’s very public and dynamics are changing, NIL, is the NCAA going to exist, transfers not having to sit out. The biggest challenge is battling the elite of the elite that have other great things to offer.

“It’s continuing to find guys that fit here, fit the culture. That’s helped us stay as consistent as we’ve been.”

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