Gonzaga has eight new players on its roster, but the Bulldogs have the same old expectations this season — earning a berth in the Final Four come April.
And after Tuesday’s season opener, Gonzaga can once again stake its claim as one of the nation’s best teams.
Despite having just nine scholarship players available, the eighth-ranked Bulldogs (1-0) dismantled Alabama State 95-64 with a solid blend of new and old.
That same mix on Saturday will welcome the Arkansas-Pine Bluff to Spokane, Wash.
“We’re just a new team,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Few told the Spokesman-Review. “We’re just new everywhere. I don’t know if we’re going to be perfect at any point this year.”
Junior forward Corey Kispert scored 28 points to lead four of five starters in double figures. Few will continue to lean on Kispert as Killian Tillie recovers from knee surgery. His status for Saturday’s game remained in doubt heading into the weekend.
The Golden Lions (0-1) opened their season on Tuesday with a 70-41 loss on the road to South Florida. Shaun Doss and Markedric Bell led Pine Bluff with 10 points each. Dequan Morris added eight for the Golden Lions.
Pine Bluff held a 22-20 lead before South Florida went on a 17-4 run to close the half. The Golden Lions went ice-cold in the second half, connecting on just 4 of 20 from the field.
The Golden Lions discovered what life is like without its best player the past two seasons, Martaveous McKnight, a two-time, All-Southwestern Athletic Conference selection who averaged nearly 21 points and five rebounds per game last season.
“When you lose a guy like McKnight, who was a big-time scorer, everybody wants to step up and take his place,” Pine Bluff coach George Ivory told the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. “He was a great player. I think the guys are adjusting well, though. But at the end of the day, I think the cream will come to the top.”
Doss could be the player the Golden Lions lean on to try to replace Knight.
As a junior, Doss averaged 12.7 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game.
Gonzaga did show some vulnerability in its win against Alabama State, and that does concern Few heading into Saturday’s game against the Golden Lions.
The Bulldogs were inconsistent on defense and on the boards, allowing the Hornets to climb back in the game. Alabama State, which ranked 292nd in the nation in 3-point shooting last season, connected on 9 of 16 3-point attempts.
With so many new players, these early games offer the Zags a chance to gel and build confidence before the more challenging stretch of schedule arrives, Kispert told the Spokesman-Review.
Few added the team will learn from its early season defensive struggles.
“We ended up not guarding guys that are really good shooters or not doing a certain ball-screen coverage. There’s some really good stuff to learn from.”
Gonzaga might have dodged a serious injury to sophomore Filip Petrusev, who was forced to leave the game temporarily in the first half after twisting his ankle.
Petrusev is expected to help replace Rui Hachimura, who was the ninth overall pick in the NBA draft last season. He returned to the game and finished with 15 points and six rebounds.
“It was a little scary, because I almost never twist my ankles,” he said.
–Field Level Media