Graham Ike’s scoring and Ryan Nembhard’s facilitating may have been the least surprising aspects of Gonzaga’s 96-58 exhibition win over Lewis-Clark State on Friday.
The Bulldogs largely know what they’ll get from the talented transfers from Wyoming and Creighton, respectively. How Gonzaga builds around Ike and Nembhard, and who fills out Mark Few’s rotation, should be one of the most intriguing storylines in the early part of the season.
We take a look at two candidates for those roles in our first 2023-24 edition of the Gonzaga rewind.
Stromer’s hot start
Dusty Stromer’s name has been absent from the majority of preseason lists and rankings breaking down college basketball’s top freshmen, but the young guard/forward should still play a pivotal role for the Bulldogs in 2023-24. Friday’s exhibition demonstrated why he might be a virtual lock for minutes in Gonzaga’s eight- or nine-man rotation this season.
Stromer registered 22 minutes – third most among the 13 players who got onto the floor – against the Warriors and scored eight points to go with six rebounds, two blocked shots and one steal.
“Dusty was great tonight,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “I’ve been pushing pretty hard on him just to – he’s a freshman, kind of making some freshman mental errors and stuff like that. He was great, he was really active. In the locker room, I complimented him. I thought he did exactly what we’ve been looking for him to do.”
A four-star prospect from Southern California, Stromer was an accomplished 3-point shooter at Sherman Oaks Notre Dame High School playing alongside Duke freshman Caleb Foster and Houston commit Mercy Miller. Stromer, who made nearly 40% of his 3s as a high school senior, went 3 of 5 from the field on Friday without attempting a 3-pointer.
Most of Stromer’s minutes came when starting wing Steele Venters, the reigning Big Sky Player of the Year from Eastern Washington, was on the bench.
“I think he can continue to show more,” Few said of Stromer. “He scored it pretty well in high school and hopefully, we can grow that part of his game. He’s another one of those guys that has a great feel for the game, can really defend. Knows how to play.”
Unprompted, Lewis-Clark State coach Austin Johnson also complimented the freshman’s defensive activity during a postgame interview.
“I thought (Stromer) really moved his feet well defensively,” Johnson said. “Not that we’re elite quickness, but I thought he really moved his feet well defensively.”
Huff’s work pays off
Both of Gonzaga’s 20-point scorers were still shaking off rust when they took the floor Friday night. Albeit for different reasons, it had been more than 1½ years since Ike and Braden Huff had played in front of a live crowd against somebody wearing a different jersey.
Ike’s 19-month hiatus was the result of a foot injury sustained just before the 2022-23 season at Wyoming. Ike hadn’t played since Wyoming’s March 15, 2022, NCAA Tournament game against Indiana.
Friday’s exhibition marked Huff’s first live action since March 12, 2022, when the former four-star recruit led his Glenbard West (Illinois) High School team to a state championship. Huff redshirted last season at Gonzaga, spending most of his days working out behind the scenes – often with an assistant coach before games – and improving his body in the weight room.
Early signs seem to show the redshirt season paid off. Huff scored 21 points in 19 minutes, making 8 of 11 shots from the field while also grabbing nine rebounds and rejecting nine shots.
“The year off was great for me,” Huff said. “It definitely at some points was pretty long, but just to be able to get in the gym and get those extra workouts in as well as kind of see the game from a different point of view was important for me.”
A 6-foot-10 forward, Huff can be a floor-spacing forward for the Zags on the offensive end and Friday’s exhibition displayed that he has the ability to be a rim protector on defense.
Statistically, he was GU’s top performer at Kraziness in the Kennel, scoring 19 points on 7-of-13 shooting from the floor and hitting 4 of 5 from the free-throw line.
“Braden can really, really shoot the ball, can really score the ball,” Few said. “We’ve been challenging him to kind of pick it up on the defensive end, especially on the defensive glass and things like that.
“So I think he’s making some strides there.”
Comparing (Bull)dogs and (Wild)cats
Few and longtime GU assistant Tommy Lloyd, who’s entering his third season at Arizona, have vowed to avoid scheduling one another during the regular season, so comparing the teams ranked No. 11 and 12, respectively, in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll probably serves little purpose unless they find a way to meet in the NCAA Tournament.
If such a matchup did happen, LCSC’s Johnson would be a valuable resource.
Within a span of two weeks, Johnson’s Warriors played road exhibition games against both teams, losing 110-70 to Arizona at the McKale Center on Oct. 20 before Friday’s 96-58 loss to Gonzaga at the Kennel.
Even after seeing both teams, Johnson cautioned against drawing too many conclusions, noting that former Gonzaga big man Oumar Ballo and frontcourt mate Pelle Larsson weren’t suited up for the Arizona game, taking away a key dimension of the Wildcats’ offensive and defensive identity.
“So different, I think,” Johnson said of Gonzaga and Arizona. “In fairness to Arizona, I think, there was no Ballo so there wasn’t the same – now that meant Caleb Love shot it more. We didn’t get to see Ballo and those are both game-changing, back-to-the-basket bigs.”
Both teams struggled to pull away from LCSC at various points in the first half before emerging with similar halftime leads. Arizona made 60% of its shots from the field against the Warriors while Gonzaga connected at a 48% clip. The Bulldogs committed half as many turnovers (six) as the Wildcats and held the Warriors to 33% shooting from the field while LCSC shot 40% at Arizona.
“I think Arizona’s really … good, especially when they have all their pieces,” Johnson said. “I think Gonzaga’s going to be a team that, they might not have an undefeated nonconference record, but if they continue to grow having someone like Ike in the half court in the NCAA Tournament where it’s not just going to be a track meet, I think that’s such a huge advantage.”
Other impressions from Friday’s exhibition in Spokane?
“ Nembhard has such great experience,” Johnson said. “And they play well together, I thought. I know they played Baylor, but for their first real game with fans, I thought Huff and Stromer, they were really solid. Their pieces fit pretty well for the first game.”