The promised land sheds a new light for Gonzaga

Tommy Lloyd’s evening’s work was done at the SAP Center in San Jose. Gonzaga had outslugged West Virginia, and in the nightcap of the 2017 NCAA West Regional the Gonzaga assistant coach was scouting, Arizona had a seemingly comfortable lead over Xavier.

So Lloyd scooped up his papers and headed for the exits, per his custom, at the final TV timeout. With just under four minutes left, Arizona’s Parker Jackson-Cartwright made two free throws for a 69-61 Wildcat lead, and now it was going to be what had seemed pre-ordained, a matchup of No. 1-seeded Gonzaga against No. 2 Arizona.

“We’d been on a collision course since December,” Lloyd said, referring to Arizona. “They’d literally watched every one of our games.”

So Lloyd made his way out of the arena. He likes to beat the crowd, hustle back to the hotel and settle in for a long night of preparation. But in the car, the play-by-play on the radio was saying different about a Gonzaga-Arizona game. Here came Xavier, the 11th seed, winning 73-71 with a stirring run down the stretch, flipping Lloyd’s mindset.

It would be a different challenge, but one for which Lloyd staunchly believed the Zags were ready. He had recently watched games involving heavyweights -- “Kansas and Duke,” he recalled. “I’m saying, ‘We’re better than they are.’ I knew we had the horses.”

As surprised as he was about Arizona, then, Lloyd was saying to himself, “Good for Xavier. But they’re gonna get their ass kicked in two days.”

That came to pass on a late-March Saturday, as the Zags crashed their first Final Four, 83-59. As he remembered Thursday night at a Gonzaga tip-off preview in Seattle that day and the week that followed, Lloyd briefly got emotional. I’d never seen him like that.

“You do things a certain way, you put your life’s work into something, you do it the right way,” Lloyd postulated. “You come up short a few times, and you wonder, ‘Is it not meant to be?’ “

But it was, and Thursday night in Phoenix, there was the gala Gonzaga put together, bringing back former players and coaches.

“Those guys would have wanted to do it themselves (make the Final Four), but they were so happy,” said Lloyd. “It was truly, truly special.”

There was the confluence of events that prolonged Przemek Karnowski’s college career -- the back injury of December, 2015 that forced a redshirt season -- without which Gonzaga probably comes up short of the Final Four a year later.

“That back injury was a blessing in disguise,” Lloyd said. “I thank him for coming back for a fifth year.”

Now, the year after that is fraught with both promise and uncertainty. Already, it’s different. For the first time since the 2000-01 season, Gonzaga isn’t the pick of WCC coaches to win the league title. Saint Mary’s is.

For any Zag willing to accommodate a chip on his shoulder, that intel will be drilled home.

“Bring it on,” said Lloyd, emphasizing each word.

It will be a thinner, but more athletic roster at Gonzaga. There will be a premium on staying healthy, so it’s not good news that freshman guard Jesse Wade has been out with shoulder injuries related to a nerve issue.

Elsewhere, Lloyd credited Johnathan Williams III with an “amazing off-season” and said, “He’s ready to be a star.”

Guard Josh Perkins “is ready for his moment in the sun,” and backcourt mate Silas Melson “has done everything we’ve asked,” and is poised to “show what he’s capable of.” Forward Killian Tillie can be “the next great Gonzaga player.”

Gonzaga’s use of Williams and Tillie in a lot of offensive sets will remind fans of how GU deployed Elias Harris and Kelly Olynyk.

Nobody is more intriguing than forward Rui Hachimura, but it was just a year ago that Hachimura came from Japan speaking -- and understanding -- only sporadic English.

“I don’t think you guys have any idea how talented he is,” said Lloyd, speaking raw skills. “He’s probably, physically, the most talented guy we’ve ever had.”

Lloyd recalled a moment at Gonzaga’s “Kraziness in the Kennel” event when Hachimura launched himself 6-8 inches inside the free throw line off his right foot and dunked with his left hand. When you’re right-handed, the left foot is dominant.

“There’s probably not 10 guys in the world that can do that,” Lloyd said.

Maybe the X factor will be Corey Kispert, the 6-6 freshman from little King’s High in Seattle. The Zag coaches are clearly taken by him. “That kid was born to be a Zag,” Lloyd said. “A stud.”

Zach Norvell is a shooter who can go off and has shown cleverness off ball screens. Unsung Jeremy Jones reminds Lloyd of Mike Hart and David Pendergraft, “a tough, hustle guy.” The caveat on Jacob Larsen is that he’s coming off tendinitis and a knee injury, but he’s a legit seven-footer with a capable right- and left-hand jump hook and mobility.

Logically, if it can stay healthy, this will be a team playing best toward the end of the season. The bad news is, the games against teams like Villanova, Florida (potentially), Creighton and San Diego State are early.

“It’s going to be an adventure,” Lloyd said. “But it’s going to be a fun adventure. We did lose a lot. It might not be a smooth ride to get there, but we’ll be ready.”

Whimsically, Lloyd said he awoke from a dream that morning. Domas Sabonis, off to a roaring start in his second year in the NBA, was back at Gonzaga for his senior year. Nigel Williams-Goss, playing now in Serbia, had also opted for a final season at GU. Zach Collins was a GU sophomore, not a rookie with the Trail Blazers.

“We’re No. 1 in the country,” Lloyd said in that apocryphal world. “We’ll take it.”

In reality, the Zags are No. 19, and that’s only a sketchy guess of what might lie ahead. But what last season proved is that there’s no glass ceiling at Gonzaga. For seasons to come, the process there was validated.

“We’re not delusional, expecting Final Fours every year,” Lloyd said. “But when you’ve done it once, why not do it again?”