It’s that time of year again. Leaves are falling and college basketball players are beyond ready to trade in practice gear for game uniforms.
“It’s inevitable,” Gonzaga assistant coach Brian Michaelson said. “Summer workouts, fall workouts, official practices, guys are usually getting pretty sick of it. They’re obviously sick of playing against each other. As a coach, you’re ready for games, thinking about games, but you always wish you were further along.”
The top-ranked Zags tip off another season with sky-high expectations against Eastern Oregon in an exhibition game at 1 p.m. Sunday at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
Exhibition games are typically lopsided affairs, as demonstrated by Gonzaga’s average winning margin of 40 points in its last 13 exhibitions. The NAIA Mountaineers, coming off an 8-12 season, are 2-1 after edging Montana Western 67-61 on Saturday before making a four-hour road trip to Spokane.
Still, this one might carry some added importance, given the birth certificates on a youthful Gonzaga roster and the fact the Zags have just one more exhibition game (Nov. 5 vs. Lewis-Clark State) and a Nov. 9 season opener vs. Dixie State before lining up against No. 5 Texas in one of the biggest home games in program history.
Head coach Mark Few is suspended for both exhibition games and the season opener after pleading guilty to DUI in mid October, about five weeks after he was arrested near Coeur d’Alene. Michaelson will serve as acting head coach for three games before Few returns for Texas.
“At the base line, it’s just progress,” Michaelson said of what he hopes to see Sunday. “Can we carry over things we’re doing in practice to under the lights? The things we’ve been good at, can we continue to do that?
“With a younger group, progress is always important but experience with a younger group and a continuing progression will be really important because it’s not going to be like some of our groups with a bunch of seniors and experience.”
Junior forward Drew Timme, senior guard Andrew Nembhard and junior forward Anton Watson are the only players with starting experience in a GU uniform. Timme is a player of the year candidate. Nembhard played his first two seasons at Florida. Watson has 22 career starts.
Top-ranked recruit Chet Holmgren leads the highest-rated freshmen class – No. 3 by 247sports – in program history.
Eastern Oregon, based in La Grande, features several players with connections to the region. Guard Max McCullough, who helped Post Falls High win a 5A state championship in 2015, is EOU’s all-time leading scorer with more than 2,100 points. The 5-11 senior averaged 21.1 points last season.
Former Gonzaga walk-on guard Paul Pennington, brother-in-law of former Zag great Kevin Pangos, averaged 12.1 points last year. Guard Justin Jeske, who played at Liberty High in Spangle, averaged 10.7 points and 8.4 rebounds for the Mountaineers last season.
Forward Ismael Valdez, wing Damarius Brown (Medical Lake High) and guard Phillip Malatare are North Idaho College products.
Gonzaga thumped Eastern Oregon 90-58 in a 2015 exhibition game.
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