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Gonzaga Basketball

With most of its roster eligible to return, Gonzaga already considering ‘scary’ possibilities for 2024-25

Gonzaga reacts after forward Graham Ike (13) picked up his last foul of the game during the second half of an NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 basketball game against the Purdue Boilermakers on Friday, Mar 29, 2024, at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, Mich. Purdue won the game 80-68.  (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

DETROIT – This time last year, in between rehabilitation sessions, Graham Ike was watching and following the NCAA Tournament from a couch back home in Denver, likely with his right leg propped up on a chair or ledge, so as not to exacerbate the foot fracture he’d sustained five months earlier.

Through the pain of Gonzaga’s 80-68 loss to Purdue on Friday, Ike was also able to find perspective. There wasn’t much comfort to be found inside a somber Gonzaga locker room, but it still beat the solitude of the living room in which Ike resided this time last year, uncertain where he’d be playing college basketball and unsure if he’d get another chance to play in the tournament he was only able to experience through a television screen.

“It’s been a long year, I wasn’t even playing basketball in September,” Ike said. “I’m just proud of myself for how much I’ve pushed through, but how much these guys have trusted in me coming in as a first-year guy coming in with them. All the great memories we’ve built.

“It’s been a great year and I look forward to the next. I look forward to the next day with these guys, the next moment with these guys because I really enjoy being with them.”

Ike re-emerged from his foot fracture as one of the top players in the country at his position, averaging 16.4 points and 7.5 rebounds for Gonzaga while building a strong case for West Coast Conference MVP honors.

What’s possible for Ike after a summer of on-court work and skill development, rather than one that consisted of rehabilitation and recovery?

Those questions are part of a broader conversation involving a Gonzaga team that’s eligible to return every player on the roster, with the exception of versatile forward Anton Watson, and isn’t expected to have many defections to the transfer portal or NBA draft.

“It’s going to be scary, man,” junior forward Ben Gregg said. “We have pretty much everyone coming back, except for Anton, which is a huge loss for us. But that hunger we have now, that motivation. Getting a taste for this, the Sweet 16, I think it’s only going to motivate us.”

Gonzaga fans aren’t the only ones who’ve already indulged themselves in the possibilities.

“We’re playing good basketball lately and I think it just means we’ll have a great shot at doing big things next year,” point guard Ryan Nembhard said.

The offseason always springs a few surprises, but Gonzaga’s outlook coming off the program’s ninth straight Sweet 16 appearances seems particularly promising.

“With the experience we got right now and with this Sweet 16 run, I’m looking forward to next year for sure, probably not right now just because of the (loss),” junior guard Nolan Hickman said. “Yeah man, pretty sure I’m going to look forward to it during the summer time when we’re back working out, back linking up and everything.”

Last summer, the Bulldogs knew they’d send off the program’s all-time leading scorer, Drew Timme, and fifth-year guard Rasir Bolton. It wasn’t a surprise when eventual first-round NBA draft pick Julian Strawther and reserve guard Malachi Smith joined them, forgoing another year of eligibility to launch their pro careers. Gonzaga also replaced three outgoing transfers: Hunter Sallis (Wake Forest), Efton Reid (Wake Forest) and Dominick Harris (LMU).

After dealing with an unusual amount of roster turnover, the recruiting trail brought a few unexpected bumps and Gonzaga dealt with a crushing injury to transfer Steele Venters two days before the season opener.

With returning players stepping into new roles, new Zags trying to build chemistry with old ones and freshmen learning hard lessons on the fly, Gonzaga took its early lumps and required all of six months to evolve into the team that thumped McNeese State and Kansas in the NCAA Tournament before losing to top-seeded Purdue.

Watson’s departure won’t go unnoticed, but the Zags should still start the 2024-25 season with a much stronger foundation if they manage to bring back four other starters – Ike (16.5 ppg, 7.4 rpg), Hickman (14.0 ppg, 2.7 apg), Nembhard (12.6 ppg, 6.9 apg) and Gregg (9.0 ppg, 5.7 rpg) – along with top reserves Braden Huff (9.3 ppg, 3.4 rpg) and Dusty Stromer (4.8 ppg, 3.3 rpg).

It’s possible a few of those players could test NBA draft waters, but most Zags insinuated they’d be back in Spokane next season during conversations with The Spokesman-Review following Friday’s loss.

“I think the sky’s the limit for this team,” Huff said. “We’re already super close, we have a ton of chemistry off the court so I’m super excited about that even though right now it hurts. I know we can achieve a lot next year, but right not it’s hard to see Anton go. That’s going to be a tough loss for us. It’s tough, but I am excited for this year.”

Gonzaga could return one of the nation’s strongest starting units, but the Bulldogs should also have more than a few quality reinforcements off the bench.

Venters, who won Big Sky Player of the Year at Eastern Washington, is on track to return to the court by the end of the summer and Gonzaga recently picked up a commitment from Pepperdine transfer wing Michael Ajayi, who nearly averaged a double-double last season with the Waves.

Should they return, guard Luka Krajnovic and forward Jun Seok Yeo could also be viable options off the bench with another year of development, and Few’s staff will continue to monitor the transfer portal as more names filter through, potentially looking for ways to cement the team’s depth at one or two spots.

Either way, Gonzaga fans will spend the next five months letting their minds wander considering the possibilities.

At least one of them already started.

“I think this team could be great, it’s really up to them,” Watson said. “They’ve got to push themselves, but I believe in them. I’m going to be watching, I’m going to be giving them advice and I’m just super proud of them this year and they’re going to be back here next year. That’s what I believe.”