As school begins, Zags' first assignment is chemistry

For about as long as I can remember, the end of a Gonzaga basketball season has been accompanied by a paean of thanks from the coach, Mark Few, about what a pleasure it was to be around his team all year. How it was a joy to travel with these guys, how the egos were manageable, how they put the good of the group ahead of their own agendas.

Now, as school again convenes at Gonzaga and coaches begin to lay the spiritual groundwork for Few’s 20th season as head man, Few has what could be his greatest challenge ahead.

Or it may be no challenge whatsoever, so seamlessly do almost all Gonzaga teams come together for the greater good.

I don’t have any doubt that this will be Gonzaga’s most gifted roster in history. When, this week, I ran that proposition by Dan Dickau, the former Zag-turned-TV-radio-analyst, he mentioned the 2013 Kelly Olynyk-led club and the Jeremy Pargo-Josh Heytvelt-Micah Downs teams. And you can’t overlook the 2017 team that broke the glass ceiling to the Final Four, led by Nigel Williams-Goss.

“But I think what you see with this one, it’s being talked about by NBA people as being legitimately talented,” Dickau said. “In the past, diehard Zags might say, ‘There’s five or six pros on this team.’ Well, slow down, maybe there’s one.

“Now they’ve got (multiple) legitimate NBA pros on the team.”

It’s hardly a stretch to project that if Rui Hachimura, Killian Tillie and Zach Norvell decide they’re NBA-ready next spring, they all get drafted. In itself, that would be a ringing endorsement for the level of talent on the 2018-19 team.

Now comes another graduate transfer, Geno Crandall of North Dakota, to test the exquisite chemistry that seems to be part of the program, like the Bulldog sculpture outside the arena doors.

Gonzaga has had astonishing success with transfers – Dickau and Williams-Goss became first-team All-Americans – and in recent years, has been active in the hunt for grad transfers. In 2014-15, Byron Wesley came from USC to average double figures and not only make his first NCAA tournament, but help the Zags to their first Elite Eight since 1999.

Then Jordan Matthews climbed aboard, fresh from Cal, for the Final Four run, and his three to thwart West Virginia in the 2017 Sweet 16 ranks among GU’s biggest shots in history.

Now Crandall (6-4) arrives to an unprecedentedly loaded roster. Inevitably, every shot he takes means that’s one less for Norvell, or Josh Perkins, or Hachimura.

At some places, that could be a problem. But we’re so conditioned to hoops as a shared enterprise at Gonzaga, we assume it won’t be.

“I don’t think so,” Dickau says. “The guys you mentioned are all team-first guys. You look at Zach – for a freshman, he came in and had a huge impact. But there were games he realized, you know what, the ball needs to go to Rui today, the ball needs to get to Tillie. The same could be said for Tillie.

“When you have such a talented roster and guys who buy in, they know, they understand it’s gonna come back to them at some point.”

It's all about doing homework. Dickau points not only to GU's process of vetting a grad transfer's reason for wanting out, but well before that, a read taken on every recruit's love of the game.

"Unfortunately, something not enough people look at these days is, does this person love to play basketball," Dickau says. "If somebody loves it, it's going to be easy to get them to improve as a player, to buy into the team mentality to be in the gym, and be happy with two minutes or 40 minutes."

If Gonzaga's pros-in-waiting were ever to get antsy about how many touches they’re getting, well, Dickau figures it should help that Few’s connection to the NBA has grown in recent years, with summer work with USA Basketball, most recently in late July. Along with Villanova’s Jay Wright and seven NBA assistants, Few worked a national-team mini-camp under San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich.

Meanwhile, in Crandall, the Zags could have a piece that helps get them, and him, back to his hometown. The ’19 Final Four is in Minneapolis.

You could read his numbers at North Dakota as both impressive and a tad disquieting. Gonzaga, of course, knows first-hand the upside: Crandall gunned in 28 points last Dec. 16 and UND did everything but upend the Zags before succumbing in overtime on his way to averaging 16.6 points in ’17-18. But he was held in check by Nebraska and Creighton and had modest contributions of 13 and 12 points against Eastern Washington, a fellow Big Sky member.

Turnovers were a persistent issue. He had 105, against 114 assists last season, and the season before, 102 with 136 assists. There’s a suspicion that at times, he had to do too much.

Both seasons, he shot .503 and junior year, he kicked up his three-point percentage to .417.

Crandall saw both glory and gloom at North Dakota. Two seasons ago, he was part of a team that played in the NCAA tournament (he was second-leading scorer at 15.5 points). In his last season for the Fighting Hawks, they slogged to 20 losses.

He shot the ball a team-leading 356 times last season, but for comparison’s sake, Adam Morrison launched 617 in 2006 for the Zags. And Crandall had four teammates who logged 260-plus shots.

“He can make point guard reads and point guard decisions,” says Dickau, who has seen Crandall play several times. “He’s a good shooter and can shoot with range. He’s athletic enough to get into the paint. Defensively, as good as Josh (Perkins) and Silas (Melson) were at times, I think these two guys, Josh and Crandall, are going to have the same opportunity. They’re both long, physically strong and quick.”

Left unsaid is that Crandall is expected to match the Gonzaga unselfishness gene.