It can be a cumbersome task preparing for Gonzaga, but after Friday night, every team facing the Bulldogs the rest of the season will have at least some film of them playing against another opponent.
Lewis-Clark State, the first team to pay the Bulldogs a visit at McCarthey Athletic Center this season, will be disadvantaged from that standpoint when they arrive for a 6 p.m. exhibition game on Friday that will be televised on SWX.
Not that the NAIA program from Lewiston will be overly concerned with how the scoreboard reads after 40 minutes against the 11th-ranked Bulldogs, but the Warriors will nonetheless rely on informed guesses regarding Gonzaga’s players, previous Zags tendencies under Mark Few and a small sample of clips from GU’s shortened scrimmage at Kraziness in the Kennel last month.
“It’s a unique kind of tightrope to walk,” LCSC coach Austin Johnson said. “Obviously, we’re going to know about 3% of what they’re going to do. You can guess they’re going to run some ball screens, you can guess Steele Venters is going to shoot 3s, you can guess (Graham) Ike is going to break our bigs in half and we’re going to adjust accordingly.”
Three percent may not actually be a bad estimate when it comes to what the general college basketball population knows about Gonzaga in 2023-24.
“We will watch some clips from the guys from last year,” Johnson said. “They had their Kraziness in the Kennel. … It gives you a glimpse that (Ryan) Nembhard’s insane in transition. There’s no way to accurately tell them that, they just have to see that.”
Just one player, Anton Watson, is expected to return to Gonzaga’s starting unit in the same role he played last season. The Bulldogs technically return two starters, but Nolan Hickman’s shifting to a new position and should spend most of the season playing off the ball with Nembhard inhering point guard responsibilities.
Gonzaga lost 72% of its scoring to graduation, the NBA draft and transfer portal, but the Bulldogs bring in three high-level offensive players from the portal who may help alleviate those losses in Creighton’s Nembhard (12.1 points per game, 4.8 assists per game), Wyoming’s Ike (19.5 ppg, 9.6 rpg in 2021-22) and EWU’s Venters (15.3 ppg, 2.8 rpg).
This will be LCSC’s third trip to Gonzaga in the past five years. The Warriors have dealt with a formidable Zags frontcourt each of the past two times, facing Filip Petrusev in 2019 and the tandem of Drew Timme and Chet Holmgren in 2021. That theme shouldn’t change Friday.
Most of the new Bulldogs made their soft debut during the Kraziness event, but Ike had to put off his own because of lingering issues from the leg injury that kept him off the court at Wyoming last season. Gonzaga coaches have taken a cautious approach to Ike’s health, but the former preseason Mountain of the West Player of the Year did participate in Gonzaga’s secret scrimmage against Baylor in Phoenix last weekend and should make his home debut at the Kennel on Friday.
It’s typically wise to refrain from drawing any big conclusions from preseason exhibitions, but Friday’s could be an interesting comparison point given the same LCSC team visiting Spokane recently traveled to Tucson, Arizona, for an exhibition against former GU assistant Tommy Lloyd and the Wildcats, who are ranked one spot below Gonzaga in the preseason AP poll.
LCSC led 29-28 at one point in that exhibition and only trailed 40-36 with 4 minutes remaining in the first half before ultimately losing 110-70.
“It’s kind of hard to gauge who exactly we are when we’re having to guard Kylan Boswell or Keshad Johnson at Arizona or Ike or Nembhard,” Johnson said. “Kind of hard to know exactly who you are because half the stuff you want to do is physically impossible because of the size and speed of the athlete.”
With a number of ties to Gonzaga and the greater Spokane area on their roster, the Warriors still plan to take advantage of the experience and already have a postgame dinner planned at local Zags institution Jack & Dan’s.
LCSC’s longest-tenured player is Sam Stockton, a Gonzaga Prep product and the youngest son of Gonzaga legend John Stockton. Sam, a 6-foot-2, 170-pound guard, played in all 29 games for the Warriors last season and finished fourth on the team in assists (42).
Stockton could have an expanded role for the program this season, and Johnson occasionally calls his junior guard the “minister of culture” because of his leadership skills and ability to relate to the coaching staff.
“He’s a guy I connect with,” Johnson said. “ ‘Hey, we’re going to do team dinner. What do you think?’ or ‘Come grab my credit card, go grab the team burritos.’
“Last night, him and a bunch of the guys went over to an alum’s house and played board games for like two hours. He’s been a phenomenal teammate. He got to play in two national tournaments.”
LCSC’s starting lineup in Tucson featured two local products, Colfax High’s John Lustig and Pullman High’s Grayson Hunt.
Johnson’s top assistant coach is CJ Johnson (unrelated), a former Clarkston High standout who won two state championships with the Bantams.
Austin Johnson’s wife Kelli is a Nine Mile Falls native who briefly played volleyball at Gonzaga in 2008-09 before transferring to LCSC where she was an NAIA All-American while playing under current Washington State coach Jen Greeny. The couple have three children – one of whom became a loyal Gonzaga fan during the Timme era in Spokane.
“I have a 5-year-old son and this is the first time he’s said he’s not sure he wants (LCSC) to win,” Johnson said, “which is a little disheartening because Gonzaga doesn’t pay our mortgage or anything.”