Give Mark Few credit. The guy has spent nearly two decades bringing Gonzaga — a West Coast Conference school with an enrollment of 7,421 — to the NCAA Tournament every year, while winning almost 90 percent of his conference games.
So you can forgive him if one year, after losing a host of key contributors, the Bulldogs took a step back. Only that never seems to happen.
This year is no different, and thanks to a healthy transfer haul and a couple four-star recruits, Few and the Bulldogs seem to have reloaded like never before.
Gone are last season’s top three scorers in Kyle Wiltjer, Domantas Sabonis, and Eric McClellan, but waiting in the wings are transfers Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington), Jordan Mathews (Cal), and Johnathan Williams III (Missouri). Add a healthy Przemek Karnowski and the Bulldogs have a lineup filled with all-league talent.
Williams-Goss is a score-first point guard who put up points in bunches in his two seasons at Washington. As a sophomore, he routinely played 38-40 minutes per game. He took more than 15 shots and scored 20 or more points seven times. The 6’3 guard can distribute as well, and he will need to, given that his teammates in Spokane are simply better than the ones in Seattle. He averaged 5.9 assists per game in 2014-15 and ranked 23rd in the nation in assist rate, per KenPom.
Mathews, his former Pac-12 rival, is one of the players Williams-Goss will have to find. Mathews is a three-point shooting extraordinaire who connected on 42 percent of his attempts last season. He’ll play alongside Josh Perkins, who seems poised for a breakout year.
Up front, Karnowski was expected to be one of the WCC’s best big men in 2015-16 until an early injury derailed his season. The 7’1 center has shown he can affect the game on both ends, scoring and altering opponents’ shots.
Williams III will play the four position, but comes to Spokane as a multidimensional weapon. He can play the role of the true power forward, doing work with his back to the basket, but he also brings a strong mid-range and perimeter game.
And it’s not just the new additions that make Gonzaga as talented as any team in the nation. Perkins averaged 10 points per game in his first season and returns at guard along with Silas Melson, who stepped up his game in the latter half of the WCC schedule last year. Melson is known for his defense and should draw the toughest assignments each night. In the frontcourt, Ryan Edwards will play behind Karnowski as another experienced 7-foot behemoth.
Zach Collins and Zach Norvell headline the incoming freshman class. Both were four-star recruits, ranked by ESPN, and come from powerhouse high school programs. Collins, who played for Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas, is a McDonald’s All-American center. Norvell, from Chicago’s Simeon Academy, is a lefty shooting guard known for his range.
The other three newcomers are all of the international variety. Jacob Larsen (Denmark) suffered a season-ending injury during the offseason, but Killian Tillie (France) and Rui Hachimura (Japan) should both be ready as forwards who can contribute off the bench.
Overall, the upside to this team is clear, and it could end up being one of the best that Few has ever coached. But Gonzaga is also in a league with an improving top tier. Saint Mary’s will start the season in the top 20 and could feasibly become a second-weekend NCAA Tournament team, while BYU is coming off a run to the NIT championship game. With few quality wins last year, it took the Bulldogs until the WCC Tournament to truly lock up their tournament bid. This year, an early win against San Diego State, Florida, or Arizona could go a long way.
What are all the qualities of a strong backcourt? A great facilitator? A knock-down three-point shooter? A defensive specialist? Guys who can get to the rim and draw contact? Gonzaga has all of that and, naturally, it starts with the man at the point.
Williams-Goss hasn’t played for over a year, so it may take a few moments to shake off the rust, but once he gets going, the fun truly begins. As long as he’s willing to be more of a distributor than he was a Washington, he can play as vital a role as anyone on this team. Mathews will be his primary target, which will surely be weird to see for Pac-12 fans. The two of them together will almost make it easy for people to forget about Perkins, who can do a little bit of everything. He led the team in assists last year, but won’t be needed in the same capacity. Instead, he will be another scorer who can do his work inside or out.
As a team last year, Gonzaga was among the best in the country in effective field goal percentage, as well as most other KenPom offensive categories. It wasn’t because the Bulldogs were loaded with firepower, but because they had players who knew their roles and executed them to perfection. This year’s team is more talented on paper, and if it can develop the same sort of cohesion, it could make for a dangerous group come March.
Gonzaga had three losses last year by Dec. 12, and while none was particularly damaging, together they put the Bulldogs in a tough spot. That was exacerbated when they got swept in the regular season by Saint Mary’s and dropped another non-conference game to SMU. As a result, a WCC championship still only meant an 11 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
With so many contributors who have never played together before — and veterans like Williams-Goss, Williams III, and Karnowski who just sat out a year — it’s reasonable to expect the Bulldogs to not hit their stride right away. Gonzaga is probably good enough to beat San Diego State at home on opening night, but an Advocare Invitational field that includes Florida, Iowa State, Seton Hall, and Miami could pose problems. Just a week later, the Bulldogs have to play Arizona on a neutral floor, then an improved Washington team. It’s not hard to imagine a few early losses again.
Like last year, however, Gonzaga could put it together at the right time and render it all meaningless. But that might be tougher with this year’s team. It’s headlined by proven products, but off the bench, they’re dealing with a combination of Melson, unproven freshmen, and subs who were barely used last year. It makes the Bulldogs’ margin for error razor thin while figuring out team chemistry.
Then again, that’s rarely a problem for Few’s teams. Realistically, we can expect another finish at or near the top of the WCC and another NCAA Tournament bid. Then, maybe a couple wins in the tournament with the potential for even more.