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Gonzaga Basketball

Four out: Theo Lawson, Jim Meehan weigh in on Gonzaga’s latest transfers, WCC additions

It’s been less than two months, but Gonzaga’s loss in the Sweet 16 to Purdue already feels like a distant memory.

The Bulldogs didn’t take long to flush their second-weekend exit at the NCAA Tournament, probably in part because they knew the opportunities that could lie ahead in 2024-25.

In the latest edition of our “Four Out” series, Gonzaga writers Jim Meehan and Theo Lawson look at how the Bulldogs have reloaded since the season ended, project who fits where and take a peek into the future of the West Coast Conference after two recent additions.

With two scholarships available (Gonzaga’s still apparently in the picture to land Colgate point guard Braeden Smith), do you think GU could use one more big as insurance. What are the risks to having too much talent, with not enough minutes to go around?

Lawson: Gonzaga didn’t need to add much to its backcourt with the expectation both Ryan Nembhard and Nolan Hickman would be returning next season. That’s a luxury most teams would like to have, but it also put Mark Few and his staff in an interesting spot knowing they’d probably need one or two reinforcements at the guard position(s), especially after Luka Krajnovic entered the transfer portal.

If he’s open to redshirting or playing limited minutes behind Nembhard and Hickman next season, Smith would have a chance to learn and develop behind two veteran, all-conference guards and take over as GU’s starting point guard the following year.

As it’s composed now, the 2024-25 roster is certainly lacking a defensive anchor in the frontcourt. Although many of Gonzaga’s best teams have had one – the 2016-17 squad had three of them with Zach Collins, Przemek Karnowski and Johnathan Williams – history suggests the Bulldogs can probably survive without. When GU made its undefeated run to the 2021 national championship, the Bulldogs didn’t have anyone averaging better than 0.7 blocks per game. Likewise, teams with Brandon Clarke and Chet Holmgren – the most prolific single-season shot blockers in school history – failed to make the Final Four.

Braden Huff is nowhere near the rim protector those two were, but the 6-foot-10 forward tied Ben Gregg for the team lead in blocks (24) last season despite averaging 10 fewer minutes per game.

Anyone GU adds moving forward, be it another guard or a defensive-minded big man, would probably have to settle for a deep bench role and focus on development for one season before stepping into a larger role in 2025-26. With nine players expected to vie for starting/rotation spots as is, there simply aren’t enough minutes to go around.

Meehan: Gonzaga is in a unique situation with a loaded, senior-heavy roster for next season, two open scholarships and a need to address the 2025-26 roster. Smith certainly makes sense. He would be a solid, proven addition for the upcoming season and then become the team’s only returning guard the following season as it stands right now.

Adding a shot-blocking big is a possibility, but would the newcomer be able to find meaningful minutes with Graham Ike, Ben Gregg, Braden Huff and Michael Ajayi – assuming he pulls his name from the NBA draft – giving GU multiple frontcourt options?

Every program would love to have tons of quality players battling for minutes. It leads to great practices, competition and the ability to deal with an injury or two, but it’s nearly impossible to do these days with the transfer portal and players generally unwilling to redshirt or sit on the bench.

Gonzaga generally sticks to a seven- or eight-man rotation and it already has six starters/key reserves from last year (Nembhard, Hickman, Ike, Gregg, Huff and Dusty Stromer), 2023 projected starting wing Steele Venters returning from injury, talented transfers Ajayi, Battle and Innocenti and wing/forward Jun Seok Yeo bidding for a bigger role.

Khalif Battle #0 of the Arkansas Razorbacks celebrates in the game against the Kentucky Wildcats at Rupp Arena on March 02, 2024 in Lexington, Kentucky.   (Getty Images)
Khalif Battle #0 of the Arkansas Razorbacks celebrates in the game against the Kentucky Wildcats at Rupp Arena on March 02, 2024 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Getty Images)

On paper, the additions of Khalif Battle from Arkansas and Emmanuel Innocenti from Tarleton State seem like perfect fits. How do you see Gonzaga’s expected rotations changing with them in the fold?

Meehan: The 6-foot-5, 175-pound Battle brings positional size, experience and a knack for getting to the foul line and scoring in bunches. His point totals in his last seven games at Arkansas: 42, 36, 34, 29, 22, 24 and 20. He made at least 11 free throws in six of the seven games.

Innocenti is a physical 2/3 guard at 6-5 and nearly 200 pounds. He’s a high-level defender and had 59 steals last season. Both possess different frames and strengths than Nembhard and Hickman.

The Zags were paper-thin in the backcourt a year ago. Nembhard and Hickman rarely left the court in competitive games. Both played in every game and both showed marked improvement in the second half of the season, despite logging heavy minutes. Battle and Innocenti have the size versatility to play in the backcourt or the wing.

Nearly every transfer that comes to Gonzaga sees his stats drop compared to their previous stop because the Zags have multiple scoring options. That doesn’t mean they aren’t productive and impactful. Ike went from 19.5 points and 9.6 rebounds in 2022 to 16.5 points and 7.4 boards in his first season as a Zag. Ike, who missed the 2023 season with an injury, was a contender for WCC Player of the Year.

Battle averaged 15.0, 21.4, 17.9 and 14.8 points in his past four seasons. He might not reach those figures, but he’ll certainly have a prominent role and it’ll be tough to keep him off the court if he’s providing a spark offensively. Innocenti won’t see the 30-plus minutes he averaged at Tarleton State, but his defensive ability alone will put him in the mix for time, especially for matchups against standout players on GU’s nonconference schedule.

Lawson: Battle immediately becomes my early pick for WCC Sixth Man of the Year after joining a Gonzaga roster that may have two or three other candidates for that award in Braden Huff, Dusty Stromer and potentially Steele Venters.

By choosing GU, which doesn’t have an obvious opening in the starting unit, Battle, at this point in his career, seems to be someone who values winning and culture over personal accolades and playing time. Considering his production near the end of the SEC season, we can assume it wouldn’t have been difficult for Battle to find a high-major program that would’ve promised a starting role and potentially offered the Arkansas transfer a more competitive NIL package.

Adapting to his role at Gonzaga, which many assume will be coming off the bench as a second-unit scorer, shouldn’t actually be too difficult for Battle, who’s only started in roughly one-third of the 101 games he’s played over the past five seasons. Battle can easily fill in for Hickman at the 2 when the senior comes out of the game. When Nembhard subs out, I imagine Hickman assumes primary ball-handler duties and Battle slides in at shooting guard. In certain matchups, Gonzaga should also have the ability to go small with all three guards on the court at the same time.

At this point, it’s much more difficult to peg Innocenti’s role and much will depend on Michael Ajayi’s decision to stay in the NBA draft or return to school. Regardless, the Zags should have more than a few options at the shooting guard/wing positions, and Innocenti gives them something they didn’t have previously, a high-level defender who can guard three or four positions against most opponents. There may be too much competition at the shooting guard/wing positions for Innocenti to carve out a rotation role next season, but with Ajayi and Venters presumably out of the picture he’ll be in line for a starting spot the following year.

What’s going on at Saint Mary’s? Despite adding Penny Hardaway’s son in the transfer portal recently, do you see the Gaels slipping substantially with all of the departures? And if so, who steps up at No. 2 in the WCC?

Lawson: It wasn’t all that long ago we were overreacting to a 3-5 start to the nonconference season for Saint Mary’s. The Gaels went on to win 23 of their next 26 games, beat Gonzaga twice, win the WCC regular-season and tournament titles and make their 10th NCAA Tournament appearance under Randy Bennett. For that reason alone, I’m not ready to count the Gaels out as a WCC contender in 2024-25, particularly when they return the conference’s reigning player of the year (Augustas Marciulionis) and its top defensive big man (Mitchell Saxen).

That doesn’t mean they don’t have work to do. Bennett loses his top assistant in Justin Joyner, who left for Michigan, and two of the conference’s top players in Aidan Mahaney (UConn) and Joshua Jefferson (Iowa State). The Gaels have generally thrived with older, experienced rosters and players who are intimately familiar with what Bennett wants on both ends of the floor. On paper, Saint Mary’s should still have one of the most talented rosters in the WCC, but Marciulionis, Saxen and to a lesser extent, Harry Wessels, are the only returners who’ve played real minutes for the Gaels.

Last I checked, Bennett’s still the coach in Moraga, California, so I’m still taking Saint Mary’s at No. 2 in a WCC preseason poll, with Santa Clara following not too far behind.

Meehan: The Gaels were reeling after the departures of Mahaney to UConn, Jefferson to Iowa State and recruit Zion Sensley decommitting, but Bennett, who really hasn’t relied on the transfer portal, has made key additions in the 6-8 Hardaway (Memphis) and Lithuanian forward Paulius Murauskas, who was a reserve at Arizona.

Saint Mary’s returns cornerstones Marciulionis and Saxen, several reserves likely to assume bigger roles and brings in promising freshmen Mikey Lewis (ESPN top 100 recruit), 6-5 guard Liam Campbell, who led Owyhee High to an Idaho 5A State title last season, and guard Joshua Dent from the program’s Australian pipeline. It might not be the roster Bennett envisioned walking off the court following a first-round NCAA Tournament loss to Grand Canyon at the Arena in March, but he always seems to find a way to bring his teams together.

I don’t see the Gaels slipping much, if at all. They’ll play “Bennett Ball” and still be in contention for a conference title and NCAA Tournament berth in February, even with a new-look roster.

Grand Canyon’s Ray Harrison dunks against Saint Mary’s during an NCAA Tournament first-round game on March 22 at the Arena. GCU will see the Gaels frequently when it joins the West Coast Conference in 2025.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Grand Canyon’s Ray Harrison dunks against Saint Mary’s during an NCAA Tournament first-round game on March 22 at the Arena. GCU will see the Gaels frequently when it joins the West Coast Conference in 2025. (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

What are your thoughts on the recent additions of Seattle U and Grand Canyon to the WCC? What could it mean for Gonzaga both in the short term, and long term?

Meehan: Commissioner Stu Jackson, roughly a year on the job, has been a busy man. He’s fortified the WCC membership with affiliates Washington State and Oregon State for the next two years and full-time members Grand Canyon and Seattle joining for the 2025-26 season.

Grand Canyon has been one of the better programs on the West Coast and the Lopes should be factor in the WCC from the day they arrive. Seattle can’t match GCU’s resources or passionate fan base, but the Redhawks have posted three straight 20-win seasons and three upper-half finishes in the Western Athletic Conference, including a share of the 2022 regular-season title. They’ll probably be more in the middle of the WCC pack.

There is strength in numbers in the current conference landscape and for a one-year overlap the WCC will have 13 basketball schools. That’s going to be a hassle in terms of scheduling, but it provides the WCC with a buffer if Gonzaga were to depart for the Big 12 or another conference.

The Zags don’t want to get left behind when (if?) conference reshuffling finally slows down, but they haven’t found a dance partner yet. Who knows if that changes tomorrow, in six months or two years?

Lawson: The WCC had to expand in order to keep up in this latest round of conference realignment. WSU and OSU join the fray next season, but a recent CBS report suggested those schools won’t be around beyond 2025-26, when their two-year affiliate agreement ends. The WCC felt it couldn’t operate long term with only nine schools and the possibility of dropping to eight if Gonzaga eventually leaves for a high-major opportunity in the Big 12, Big East or somewhere else.

Of the western-based schools that would’ve realistically entertained a move to the WCC, Grand Canyon and Seattle made the most sense.

The Antelopes bring a competitive program and passionate student body – for those unfamiliar, search “GCU Havocs” – that may even rival what Gonzaga has with its Kennel Club. Grand Canyon would’ve been a Quad 1 opponent for Gonzaga both on the road and at home this year – something only two other WCC schools (Saint Mary’s and San Francisco) could’ve said in 2023-24.

Seattle U won’t bring quite the same pop as GCU, but it should improve the overall quality of the conference, finishing No. 119 in the NET rankings last season. That would’ve ranked in the top half of the WCC and a whole 80 spots higher than LMU, which had the conference’s fifth-best NET ranking last season.

Another bonus from Gonzaga’s standpoint? Seattle U splits its time between the 999-seat Redhawk Center and the 18,300-seat Climate Pledge Arena. Games between the Zags and Redhawks would almost certainly take place at the much larger downtown arena, giving Seattle-based GU fans another opportunity to see their team in person.