Zags look loaded, as is the non-league schedule
06-06-18

With news of Gonzaga’s 2018-19 basketball schedule dribbling in, I got to wondering how it might stack up against some of the Zags’ previous schedules.

As you might guess, it’s a highly subjective exercise in which it’s difficult to produce a wrong answer.

To date, we know Gonzaga is due to host Texas A&M and Washington, go on the road to Creighton and North Carolina and meet Tennessee in Phoenix at the Jerry Colangelo Classic. (That’s such a hot ticket, Bryan Colangelo, Jerry’s son, is already tweeting about it.) And the Zags go to the Maui Invitational, which is stacked with likely preseason top-10 squads Auburn and Duke.

Scheduling is tricky business, and so is judging a strength of schedule in the preseason. Scheduling intent doesn’t always match up with scheduling reality. The top-25 team you thought you were getting can morph into a top-five outfit before it’s over, or it can flop and serve to sabotage your metrics.

(Veteran Zag followers might remember 2001-02, which I think of as the Season of Lost Innocence. Fresno State and St. Joseph’s were supposed to be of Final Four ilk, but they turned out to be disappointments, which led to Gonzaga drawing a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament; which led to playing Wyoming at altitude in Albuquerque; which led to one of only three first-round losses in the 20-year streak of NCAA appearances.)

I decided to look at a simple -- and admittedly suspect -- metric: How many times the Zags have played Power Five conference teams over the last decade. That’s fraught with a lot of disclaimers; not all Power Five teams are created equal, for one. Second, unlike football, even a reference to “Power Five” is dubious, since surely the Big East can lay claim to being part of a Power Six, with Villanova, Xavier, Creighton, et. al. Nobody would suggest a visit to Creighton isn't a stern test.

And finally, we don’t know for sure that Gonzaga is done scheduling such teams for 2018-19 (although my guess is that it is).

Enough preamble. Right now, Gonzaga has four opponents from Power Five leagues, with the possibility that could rise to six or seven with yet-undetermined Maui opponents.

I was a little surprised to discover that twice in the last decade, Gonzaga has faced eight Power Five opponents in the regular season -- and in 2008, actually did that, plus Connecticut, Utah (which was still in the Mountain West) and Memphis. It also faced eight Power Fives in the regular season in 2012-13, when it made its first foray to a No. 1 ranking.

What does appear to be possible about the 2018-19 schedule is that it could be unprecedented at GU for high-end opponents. Tennessee and North Carolina are top-shelf, and the prospect is also there for one or two more likely top-10 opponents in Maui in Auburn and Duke. Combine all that with Washington -- being mentioned by some as a contender to win the Pac-12 -- and there’s a lot of heavy lifting.

All this discussion is an excuse to take a closer look at what awaits the Zags with their known opponents to date. Since not all dates are firmed up, we’ll do it alphabetically:

Creighton -- Blue Jays went to the round of 32 in March, but might be due for a step back after losing 2,000-point collegiate scorer Marcus Foster, plus Khyri Thomas, a 15.1-ppg scorer and Big East defender of the year who is a popular pick to be a first-round NBA draftee. I could see this being a crusade game for Creighton, which regularly puts 17,000 into the CenturyLink Center in Omaha and was No. 5 nationally in attendance. In fact, this from Tom Shatel, columnist for the Omaha World-Herald: “The Gonzaga game will be probably the second-biggest non-con home game besides Kentucky in the 2009 NIT” since Creighton moved into the arena in 2003.

North Carolina (Dec. 15) -- Tar Heels, blasted out of the NCAA tournament in the second round, 86-65, by Texas A&M, got a big boost when Luke Maye decided to pull back from an NBA dalliance, returning his 16.9 points and 10.1 rebounds. Guards Kenny Williams and Cameron Johnson are also back. Leading scorer Joel Berry II and top assist-maker Theo Pinson are gone, but two mega-recruits are incoming: 6-3 guard Coby White and 6-7 forward Nassir Little, who was MVP of the McDonald’s All-American game. Not only will White and Little have had a month to acclimate to college hoops, the timing will be challenging for GU, which will play Tennessee six days earlier, go through finals week and face a cross-country flight.

Tennessee (Dec. 9) -- Mark Few and Vols coach Rick Barnes have had a long friendship, a good thing for Gonzaga, which has won most of their meetings -- including the annual, closed preseason scrimmages they staged when Barnes was at Texas. When forward Admiral Schofield (13.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg) decided to pass on the NBA, it meant the Vols will return their top six scorers from a team that went 26-9 and finished No. 6 in adjusted defense in KenPom rankings. Grant Williams (15.2 ppg) was SEC player of the year, and the Vols were unlucky not to survive Loyola of Chicago in the NCAA round of 32, as Clayton Custer hit a late, unlikely rim-clanger that fell for the Ramblers.

Texas A&M (Nov. 15) -- If form holds, this would be Gonzaga’s only test of significance before Maui, and the Aggies’ roster should be thinned by the departure of its vaunted front line of Robert Williams, Tyler Davis and D.J Hogg. Return of guard Admon Gilder (12.3 ppg) means the backcourt is intact, with point guard T.J. Starks. Aggies recruited a couple of JC guards, and they get eligible 6-9, 240-pound transfer Josh Nebo, who spent two years at St. Francis of Pennsylvania. You should also know that, according to the A&M website, Nebo’s father is named Shady.

Washington -- Huskies are a bit of an anomaly. Their matchup zone defense in the first year of the Mike Hopkins regime got a lot of acclaim, yet they allowed 44.7 percent shooting. And the offense was a mere 140th by KenPom. They had a decidedly negative assist-turnover ratio, which could augur time for incoming freshman point guard Elijah Hardy. Washington has its top seven scorers back, including Jaylen Nowell (16 ppg) and big man Noah Dickerson, who turned back from a look at the NBA after a terrific season. Hopkins deserved major credit for his debut 21-13 season, but it’s also true that it looked a lot better against Lorenzo Romar’s 9-22 outfit that thoroughly underachieved the year before. Huskies have gotten rocked 11 of the past 12 by the Zags, and they might look first to their defense; Gonzaga has shot 50 percent or better in the last eight meetings.

Maui Invitational (Nov. 19-21) -- Also features Arizona, Auburn, Duke, Illinois, Iowa State, San Diego State and Xavier . . . Arizona’s bizarre season ended with Sean Miller still in place after the program was implicated in the FBI investigation, the year capped by a first-round, blowout loss to 13th-seeded Buffalo in the NCAAs . . . UA’s top five scorers are gone, and the nucleus probably will be Duke transfer Chase Jeter, point guard Brandon Williams and fellow freshmen Devonaire Doutrive (6-5) and 6-7 Belgian Omar Thielemans . . . Duke likewise loses its nucleus but nabbed the top-three-rated recruits nationally -- 6-6 Zion Williamson, 6-7 R.J. Barrett and 6-7 Cameron Reddish . . . Auburn just shrugged at the FBI probe and extended Bruce Pearl’s contract, and competitively, the Tigers got a boost with the return of Bryce Brown, Jared Harper and 6-11 Austin Wiley, all of whom had sniffed around at the draft, leading an Al.com columnist to write, “Be afraid, SEC. Be very afraid.” . . . San Diego State, upset winner over GU last December, has its 2-3-4 scorers back, topped by USF transfer guard Devon Watson. It also gets back, after a pro dalliance, 6-10 Jalen McDaniels of Federal Way . . . Brad Underwood will be in his second year at Illinois, where he had a 14-18 opener . . . Travis Steele takes over for Chris Mack as Xavier coach and has a team ranked No. 22 by Sporting News . . . Guard Lindell Wigginton (16.7 ppg) turned his back on the NBA to return to Iowa State, which went winless on the road in going 13-18 . . . with Auburn, Duke and Gonzaga prospectively the top three in Maui, the intrigue will be which club gets the side of the bracket without the other two -- and that’s probably Duke . . . Maui, a mere 10 days into the season, could be a better time to face a young Blue Devils team than later.


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