by Michael Vernetti
That Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga would battle for the championship of the WCC in 2017-18 should surprise no one. That Saint Mary’s should have the edge over last season’s national championship finalist may surprise many.
Gonzaga ran the table against the Gaels last year, a 3-0 whitewash that didn’t include a single close game. Saving the worst for last, Saint Mary’s bombed so completely in the first half of the WCC championship game that a second-half comeback to crawl within five points served only to save a little face. The confident Zags suddenly woke up, ran off an 11-2 blitz and cruised to an 18-point win, 74-56. They then rattled off four straight NCAA Tournament wins before coming up a little short, 71-65, in the title game against North Carolina.
Saint Mary’s recovered from the WCC tourney setback enough to beat Virginia Commonwealth in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, and to stay close before losing to Arizona in the second round. A good 29-5 season versus a dominating 37-2 campaign. Game, set, match.
So, what will be different in 2017-18? It’s simple — the Gaels have better horses.
Gonzaga simply saw too much talent go out the door following its dream season, and has too little left to match last year’s record. Gone is the dominating one-two inside punch of Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins and the skillful trigger man who unleashed its potential, point guard Nigel Williams-Goss. Flirting with the NBA and potentially creating a chasm instead of an opening in the Zags’ front court is forward Johnathan Williams III, who still hasn’t indicated whether he will enter the NBA draft or return to Spokane.
And, topping it off, Jordan Matthews, the ex-California outside bomber, has used up his one-year rental contract with Mark Few’s charges. That makes three or four major contributors missing for the upcoming season, a deficit even a talent-rich environment such as Kentucky, North Carolina or Duke would have trouble making up.
The Zags are hardly destitute, bringing back skilled and experienced guards Josh Perkins and Silas Melson, and eagerly awaiting redshirts Zach Norvell Jr. and Jacob Larsen, along with highly-regarded freshmen Corey Kispert, Jesse Wade and Joel Ayayi. Also ready to emerge from the wings are sophomores Killian Tillie and Rui Hachimura, who made valuable contributions to the Zags’ success last year.
That’s a lot of quality players — why won’t it be enough to edge out the Gaels for the second year in a row?
Starts in the post
The problem starts in the post, where the Zags are counting on Larsen, the 6-11 center from Denmark, to replace Karnowski and Collins. The problem is, Larsen is coming off two knee injuries and has not done much since he shone at an international competition when he was 16. One unproven Dane with knee issues does not replace the experience and athleticism of Karnowski and Collins.
The Zags are facing their biggest talent gap in the post since Karnowski went down with back troubles two years ago. At that point they merely upped the minutes given to Domantas Sabonis, who had been backing up Karnowski. Sabonis became a dominating low post presence in the 2015-16 season, and is now looming large in the future plans of the Oklahoma City Thunder. There is no Sabonis waiting in the wings behind Larsen.
Contrast that situation with the Gaels’ depth at center. Jock Landale, a finalist last year for the Kareem Abdul Jabbar award (won by Karnowski) given to the nation’s outstanding post player, is back for a senior season when he will be a candidate not only for WCC Player of the Year, but also for all-American or other national honors.
Backing up Landale will be another Jock, the 7-1 redshirt Jock Perry, who was considered a much brighter prospect when he and Landale were junior players in Australia. The Gaels can also call upon junior Jordan Hunter. who has logged numerous quality minutes behind Landale and, Gael coaches believe, is capable of stardom in his own right.
Gaels strong at forward, too
Switching to forward, Gonzaga fans are justly anxious to see what Tillie and Hachimura can do with more playing time, and still don’t count out Williams to return for his senior season. Whether Few has three excellent front line players or two, he still has to plan on using one of them in the post to back up Larsen.
Again, the Gaels seem more settled in the other front line positions. Evan Fitzner was made a reserve at power forward last year even though he started every game because Gael Coach Randy Bennett couldn’t wait to insert Dane Pineau in Fitzner’s place for Pineau’s superior defense and rebounding. Pineau has graduated, however, and the position is Fitzner’s to keep if he can. A much better shooter than Pineau, the 6-10 Fitzner needs to show Bennett he can stay on the floor because of his defense and rebounding instead of his three-point shooting skill — which is considerable.
Again, Bennett has options because of the presence of Hunter, an eager and athletic 6-10 front line player, who could do what Pineau did last year if necessary — play the power forward spot in addition to the post. The Gael front line corps of Landale, Perry, Hunter and Fitzner is equal to the Zags’ contingent whether Williams comes back or not.
New Zag faces
Looking past the front line, Zag adherents eagerly point to a crop of talented newcomers, and they have a point. In case you’re feeling sorry for the “depleted” Zag roster, ask yourself this question: who is Jesse Wade? Odds are most non-Zag fans can’t name him because Gonzaga signed him in 2015. He’s been on an LDS mission since then, but he was something at Davis High School in Kaysville, UT.
A skinny, 6-1 jump-shooter, Wade was Utah’s Mr. Basketball, and Gonzaga’s recruitment constituted a broad daylight theft from BYU, which likes to think it has cornered the market on basketball-playing Mormons in Utah. Wade reminds me of two former WCC stars, neither of whom contributed to the sleep of Gael fans — Tyler Haws of BYU and Kevin Pangos of Gonzaga.
Like Pangos, Wade is a scoring point guard, and like Haws he is an excellent shot-maker. He could be even better than Haws, however, because his range is anywhere inside the gym, while Haws wasn’t much of a three-point threat. Wade returned home from his mission in France this spring, and has seven months or so to work off the rust from his time off the court. There is some talk that the Zags could redshirt him, but I don’t believe it. He’s too good.
Also showing up in Spokane this fall will be 6-6 wing Corey Kispert, who was the Washington high school player of the year at Seattle’s Kings High School after averaging 25 PPG. He is similar in style to the Gaels’ Calvin Hermanson, a former two-time player of the year from Oregon. Kispert suffered a Jones fracture of his right foot at the tail end of his high school career, so has some rehabbing before next season starts, but the Zags have him penciled in as a future star.
Also anxious to show his mettle is Norvell, the highly-touted Chicago high school guard who, like Larsen, encountered some knee problems before his freshman season got underway, so redshirted last year. The 6-5 Norvell was the darling of Zag fans before Williams-Goss came into their lives, and hopes are high for him.
The Gaels are going with known entities in their back court, with senior Emmett Naar and sophomore Jordan Ford expected to get the majority of minutes. An unexpected bonus came Bennett’s way with the decision by former New Mexico and Mississippi sharpshooter Cullen Neal to become a Gael via the fifth-year transfer route. Abetted by freshman Kristers Zoriks from Latvia via The Hampton School in New Hampshire, the Gaels’ back court should once again constitute an object lesson in pick-and-roll efficiency.
The bottom line
In picking the Gaels as next year’s WCC champion, I’m choosing experience and consistency over promise. Yes, the Gaels lost not only the formidable defender and rebounder Pineau, but also the consummate leader in point guard Joe Rahon. But they don’t have any promising redshirts or incoming freshmen vying to take the places of Pineau and Rahon.
The new names that will be inserted into the Gaels’ lineup are known entities who, like Ford, have demonstrated flashes of excellence in Moraga, or, like Neal, have carried starter responsibility for two high mid-major programs. The Gaels will be built upon the excellent-but-still-improving Landale and a back court duo who live to run high ball screens. Excellent three-point shooting from Fitzner, Hermanson, sophomore Tanner Krebs and newcomer Neal will complement a dominating low post attack, and the Gaels will be their usual stingy selves on defense.
The Zags will give Few an opportunity to retain his national coach of the year honors by deploying a quick-strike offense that makes everyone forget Karnowski and Collins, but I doubt it. They have counted on excellent low post play as the cornerstone of their offense for too many years to switch gears in 2017-18. They’ll be very good — head and shoulders above the bottom eight teams of the WCC, including BYU — but not good enough to stop the Gaels.
Here’s my not-really-too-early-because-not-much-will-change-before-November forecast:
- Saint Mary’s
- BYU, but don’t bet the store
- San Francisco, with a more-than-decent chance to surpass BYU
- Santa Clara
- Loyola Marymount
- San Diego
In a game against Gonzaga from last season, Jock Landale calls for the ball in the low post against Zag defenders Johnathan Williams III and Zach Collins. Collins is certainly gone next year and Williams may be, too, but Landale will be back. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.