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Gonzaga Basketball

Basic math: How the addition of three transfers could keep Gonzaga near the top of the college basketball world

Gonzaga basketball starters Graham Ike (13), Ryan Nembhard (0) and Steele Venters (2)  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)

It’s Thursday morning, a mere 22 days before the start of a new college basketball season in Spokane, and three Gonzaga players arrive on the upper concourse of McCarthey Athletic Center for a prescheduled photoshoot.

They vary in age, position and physical stature – the last of which is only accentuated when they finish individual photos and gather to pose for a few shots together, standing shoulder to shoulder.

On the left, a 6-foot-9, 240-pound, broad-shouldered forward with a black mustache and goatee. In the middle, a 6-foot, 175-pound point guard with frizzy hair and familiar facial features. On the right, a slender, 6-foot-7, 195-pound wing with stalky arms and gelled brown hair.

Between photographs, Ryan Nembhard spins a basketball on his index finger before letting it fall to his thigh and passing off to Steele Venters, who attempts the same trick before losing control. Hip-hop music plays in the background from Nembhard’s portable speaker while the point guard resumes the juggling circle, this time keeping the ball alive with his feet before flicking it to Graham Ike.

In a post-Drew Timme and Julian Strawther world, Mark Few and Gonzaga will depend – not entirely, but largely – on a 20-year-old floor general from the Big East, a 21-year-old post player from the Mountain West and a 22-year-old sharpshooter from the Big Sky to keep the second-longest active NCAA Tournament streak alive (23 years), extend the program’s run of consecutive Sweet 16 appearances (8 years) and prolong one of the most unlikely success stories in modern college sports.

The transfer portal era of college basketball has left many coaches confronting the reality that rosters they’ve spent years assembling can deteriorate in a matter of weeks. Reassembly can happen even faster, though, and after losing seven scholarship players who logged minutes in 2022-23, Gonzaga took an aggressive approach to the portal to land three transfers who are expected to keep the Bulldogs near the top of the college basketball totem pole.

“I know it was just a huge relief for our program because we really, really, really obviously wanted them,” Few said at West Coast Conference Media Day. “We don’t recruit a lot of guys, we’re pretty specific.”

Anticipating that Strawther, an eventual first-round selection by the Denver Nuggets, would keep his name in the NBA Draft, Few’s staff addressed that spot first and picked up an April 7 commitment from Venters, a lanky wing who shot 3-pointers at a high clip during his time at Eastern Washington, making 40.3% over three seasons.

Gonzaga’s next splash in the transfer portal was more like a tidal wave that sent analysts and pundits scrambling to reorder their preseason Top 25 rankings and reconsider the Bulldogs’ status as a national title contender.

On the morning of April 21, spaced apart by roughly an hour, Ike, from Wyoming, and Nembhard, from Creighton, announced commitments to Gonzaga on their social media platforms, giving the Bulldogs a physical force in the low post to help offset the loss of Timme and a savvy point guard that would allow Few to revamp his backcourt.

“Obviously when it popped that Ryan was going to be available, we did everything we could and went all in on that,” Few said. “Then I’d seen Graham over the years playing against (former Gonzaga assistant/Boise State coach) Leon (Rice) and I knew if he was ever going to put his name in the portal, that’d be a guy that would probably really help with us.”

Few, who spent an atypically busy offseason retooling Gonzaga’s roster before serving as an assistant for Team USA at the FIBA World Cup, had to jog his memory to recall both commitments coming on the same morning in late April.

Upon doing so, Few remarked, “Yeah, it was a good day.”

The acquisitions themselves helped tide Gonzaga fans through an offseason where they said farewell to the most productive player in program history, but with a Nov. 10 season opener against Yale fast approaching – and a slate of marquee games at the Maui Invitational arriving quickly after that – most have turned their attention to how the Bulldogs’ three coveted transfers will impact things on the court.

A shakeup in the frontcourt is the first thing most will notice if they haven’t followed Gonzaga’s comings and goings this offseason. Contrary to what some believed, Timme’s eligibility clock was going to expire at some point and the three-time All-American actually declined an opportunity to come back for a fifth season to start his professional basketball career.

In replacing the school’s career scoring leader – and leader on most other fronts – the Zags could’ve done a lot worse than Ike, who’s Timme-esque in the sense that most of his scoring is done on the low block with his back to the basket. In other ways, he’s vastly different than the player who held down the five spot in Spokane the last three years.

“Obviously being left-handed and all that is different,” Few said. “His game’s definitely different than say Drew obviously. But there’s some similarities maybe with Domas (Sabonis) and guys like that.”

Ike, who missed Wyoming’s 2022-23 season while rehabbing from a foot injury, was a non-participant at Kraziness in the Kennel and Gonzaga’s coaching staff has erred on the side of caution while easing him back into full-contact practices.

Teammates haven’t felt Ike’s physicality in a way that GU’s opponents might once he’s fully cleared to play, but they’ve felt his presence – and often hear his voice from the sideline – during various drills and scrimmages.

“I think everyone on the team loves Graham,” graduate forward Anton Watson said. “He’s super chill, I think he’s got some similarities to me but just a great teammate. Even when he’s not on the court all the time, he’s just bringing energy and just picking everybody up. You can just tell he’s got great character in him and we’re just glad to have him on the team.”

Not unlike the player he’s replacing, Ike’s expected to be an efficient inside scorer for the Zags after connecting on 52.4% of his shots over two seasons at Wyoming. Ike was also fine-tuning his 3-point stroke and making those shots at a fairly impressive clip last preseason, according to those who’d been observing the big man in Laramie before his foot injury.

“He’s been working on his shot a lot. He was going to bring that,” said Hunter Maldonado, a former All-Mountain West First Team guard at Wyoming who teamed up with Ike to help the school secure an at-large NCAA Tournament bid in 2021-22. “I mean, he was hitting a bunch of 3s in practice leading up to the (2022-23) season, preseason. In some of our scrimmages he was shooting it really, really well and I think no one’s had a chance to see that because he has been hurt. So I think that’ll be a surprise coming into the next season.”

Nembhard and Ike may not have planned their commitments to happen in unison, but it’s maybe not a surprise that they dropped the same morning. Gonzaga’s top transfer targets hit it off when they took a campus visit together in mid-April – again, unplanned – and their partnership, especially considering the role point guards and big men play in Few’s offensive system, could be the most critical component to the Bulldogs making another deep NCAA run next March.

“He’s a great dude, been a great teammate so far all summer,” Nembhard said of Ike. “He’s a great guy, I was on my visit with him so I think he’s just great for the program, great for everything so I look forward to seeing him on the court.”

In surveying the portal landscape for a point guard, the Zags weren’t necessarily looking to fill a void left by an outgoing player. Junior Nolan Hickman held down that role last year, with varying degrees of success, and Few thought Gonzaga’s backcourt could be more potent if he was able to slide Hickman into a more natural position playing off the ball.

It would only work if the Zags could identify an experienced floor general who was comfortable operating in Few’s ball-screen heavy offense. So they went to a familiar source. Andrew Nembhard was one of the best decision-makers and ball distributors in the country during a two-year stint at Gonzaga, averaging 5.1 assists compared to 1.5 turnovers, and younger brother Ryan had just left Creighton, seeking a change of scenery and new system.

Ryan, similar to his older brother, is a low-maintenance point guard who prefers to facilitate for others, averaging 12.1 points and 4.8 rebounds in 2022-23 for a Creighton team that lost to national runner-up San Diego State in the Elite Eight.

“He’s phenomenal, he’s easy,” Few said. “He’s a great player, first of all, and a great point guard. I think he’s the best point guard in all of college basketball.”

Creighton teammates who often benefitted from the gravity Nembhard created on the floor might concur with Few.

“He can pass, he gets his teammates open,” said former Creighton guard Alex O’Connell, who played alongside Nembhard during the 2021-22 season. “He draws defense and he draws help. That would allow me to get open sometimes on cuts and open shots and 3s. He’s a good threat to have on the court at all times, especially at the point guard position.”

Nembhard proved more than just a passing threat when he exploded for 30 points, making four 3-pointers and going 10 of 10 from the free throw line, against Baylor in the second round of the 2023 NCAA Tournament. While that eruption was happening, Nembhard’s future Gonzaga teammates were getting dressed in the same building, preparing for their own NCAA Tournament game against TCU.

“I think he has a good feel for the game, he plays at his own pace, he usually doesn’t let other teams speed him up which is a good attribute for a point guard, especially at the college level,” O’Connell said. “Playing with pace is everything. I’m excited to see what he does at Gonzaga.”

Of the three incoming transfers, Venters was closest to Gonzaga proximity wise, but he might have also been the longest shot to carve out a roster spot with a perennial top-10 program.

When Eastern Washington paid Gonzaga a visit during the COVID-impacted 2020-21 season, Venters, a preferred walk-on, didn’t see the court. Three years later, the Bulldogs were the first program to make contact with the Big Sky Player of the Year after he submitted his name in the transfer portal.

“He can score the ball in a variety of ways, he’s hyper competitive,” EWU coach David Riley said. “It gets overlooked, he’s a worker, he’s competitive, he never wants to lose. So he fits Gonzaga’s culture. He’s super skilled, competitive, tough. Tough kid. His trajectory is pretty damn good. It’ll be fun to keep watching it keep going up.”

Over the last two seasons, Venters had 19 games scoring at least 20 points and he was considered one of the top perimeter shooters in the portal, making five 3-pointers in eight games over that same span. With more talent around him, Venters should find more open looks this season, but a long wing span allows him to get his shot off cleanly over most guard/wing defenders.

“I feel like because he brings so much attention, others are going to be able to play off of him,” former EWU teammate and All-Big Sky guard Angelo Allegri said. “He makes the game so much easier as he did for me, so I feel like those Gonzaga players and maybe even the naked eye might not see it, but those players that are in it are going to feel it.”

Former Eastern Washington coach Shantay Legans, now entering his third year in the same position at Portland, now has to game plan for his former player at least twice this season when the Zags and Pilots meet in the WCC. Venters’ shooting won’t necessarily be the only thing on Portland’s scouting report.

“He brings a lot of length. He does a good job defensively with deflections,” Legans said. “Being able to do certain things will help him, help that team, because he’s a 6-7 wing. There’s not a lot of those guys sitting around, being able to do what he can do.

“… Offensively, he’s been really good but defensively I think is where he goes really unnoticed because he’s not a lockdown guy but he gets deflections, his guy hardly ever scores, he’s a great team defender. So I think he’ll bring a lot of that to them.”

Together, Venters, Nembhard and Ike make up one of the country’s top transfer classes. Only one other team, West Virginia, brought in three transfers each ranked inside the top-60 by On3.com.

In this era of college basketball, that could be more valuable than a freshman class loaded with five-star prospects. Starting lineups during last year’s national championship game between UConn and San Diego State featured five seniors, three juniors, one sophomore and one freshman. The year prior, 8 of 10 starters from Kansas and North Carolina were upperclassmen.

While breaking down transfer portal winners and losers this offseason, The Athletic, Fox Sports and ESPN all tabbed Gonzaga – which also lost three players to the portal – as a team that indisputably came out ahead.

“Gonzaga had to do big things in the portal to ensure the room didn’t feel empty starting this summer,” The Athletic wrote. “It got that done, and then some.”

Gonzaga addressed its deficiencies with simple math. Now it’s time to see if three key additions can help the Bulldogs reach the lofty heights – Sweet 16, Elite Eight, Final Four – that almost feel like annual checkpoints in Few’s 25th season.