Gonzaga Basketball Offseason Check-In

The Zags men and women add impact transfers, while the WCC adds new schools.

click to enlarge Gonzaga Basketball Offseason Check-In
Erick Doxey photo
Mark Few's biggest transfer portal add this year? Former Pepperdine star Michael Ajayi.
  Gonzaga's on-court action may have ended in March, but in the modern college basketball landscape, there's still off-court action in the months that follow. From conference realignment to transfer portal player movement, the Bulldogs have been plenty busy.

SAME LEAGUE, NEW LOOK

This upcoming season will see an 11-team WCC for the first time, with the additions of Washington State and Oregon State on a temporary, two-year basis.

The two Pac-12 castaways bring bigger enrollments — both boast at least twice as many students as any other current WCC member — and power conference-level facilities, but that’s about it.

Washington State is coming off of its most successful season in years, but it subsequently lost its coach and most of its roster. And outside of a complete outlier Elite Eight run in 2021, Oregon State has been an afterthought at the power conference level for ages.

Previously, both programs could lean on their power conference affiliation to bolster recruiting, but that’s gone now. Still, they have the ability to add intrigue and importance to the WCC.

For Gonzaga, a pair of games against WSU will bring a natural geographical rival that they haven’t had in almost a decade. The Zags have avoided playing WSU since 2015. Back then, Gonzaga was so ahead of WSU in the national pecking order that playing them was a lose-lose situation. Now, for at least two seasons — like it or not — they’ll be forced to take on the team from Pullman.

And while the Pac-12's two-year stay has been known for a while, there are new developments in WCC membership. Starting in 2025, Seattle U and Grand Canyon are also joining the fray.

Seattle U is a traditional fit as a smaller, Jesuit university located in the WCC’s existing West Coast footprint. Their basketball program is on the upswing as well, which helps. That said, they’ve got little history to lean on, as the Redhawks rejoined the Division I ranks in 2009 and have not made the NCAA Tournament since.

Grand Canyon is more of an outlier. It may be the WCC’s new BYU, but without the pedigree or cache.

When GCU joined Division I in 2013, it did so as the first and only for-profit school. Depending on who you ask, GCU remains for-profit; GCU claims otherwise, but the Department of Education begs to differ (Google “GCU scandal” if you want a crash course).

While things may be sketchy off the court, the Lopes have shown real aptitude in recent seasons on the court. The squad has made the NCAA Tournament three of the last four years, including a first round loss to Gonzaga in 2023 and a first round victory over St. Mary's in Spokane back in March. If Grand Canyon remains committed to athletic success, the Lopes should be an instant competitor for second place in the WCC.

INCOMING IMPACT

Last season, the transfer portal hit the Zags hard when Hunter Sallis, Dominick Harris and Efton Reid packed their bags and left the program. This year has been a completely different story.

Of Gonzaga’s seven rotation players, six are returning. The only departure is Anton Watson, who after five years has exhausted his college eligibility.

There were a few moves further down the roster, with Luka Krajnovic, Pavel Stosic and Colby Brooks heading out the door early. But they combined for just 74 points on the season, only 2.5% of Gonzaga’s total scoring output.

And the guys coming in to replace those three and Watson? They have a track record of stuffing the stat sheet.

The first addition was Michael Ajayi from Pepperdine. A 6-foot-7 wing, Ajayi brings athleticism and all-around production to a spot that the Zags would otherwise be lacking. Averaging 17.2 points (tops in the WCC) and 9.9 rebounds (second in the WCC) while shooting a strong 47% from behind the 3-point arc, Ajayi was named first team All-WCC last season.

While he was the first transfer addition, committing to the Zags before their season ended in March... he was also the last to fully commit. After his breakout year for the Waves, Ajayi was invited to the NBA Draft Combine and generated so much buzz that he waited until the final day to pull his name out of the draft. With Ajayi likely moving into the starting lineup, the Zags looked to the portal for depth pieces to fill out the roster. After a season with virtually no depth, next season’s Zags will be totally loaded.

Arkansas transfer Khalif Battle averaged 14.8 points per game a season ago and was prone to explode for significantly more on occasion. He surpassed 30 points three times and went for 42 against Missouri. Entering his sixth year in college, Battle will provide stability and experience in the mold of previous transfer guards like Geno Crandall and Admon Gilder who came to Gonzaga for one final shot at glory.

On the other end of the age spectrum for transfers is rising sophomore Emmanuel Innocenti, from Italy by way of Tarleton State. The 6-foot-5 wing averaged solid numbers with 6.6 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, but his biggest impact was on the defensive end. He earned All-Defensive and All-Freshman team honors in the WAC.

One final name to note, though not for next season, is Braeden Smith. The reigning Patriot League Player of the Year will follow the tried-and-true Gonzaga tradition of entering the program, redshirting for a year, and then taking the reins after that. The Seattle native will have two years of eligibility remaining as he looks to be the Zags’ point guard of the future starting in 2025.

THE WOMEN REBOUND

Lisa Fortier’s team is coming off its best season under her watch, but many of the reasons for last season’s success are now gone. A massive rebuild is underway. The Truong sisters are gone due to graduation, as is the sharpshooting Brenna Maxwell.

But thankfully, perhaps the best individual player of the quartet — Yvonne Ejim — is back. If you thought Ejim was the focal point of the offense last year, expect even more from the reigning WCC Player of the Year this upcoming season. Because Gonzaga will need it.

Last season, she was asked to dominate on a roster with players who'd proven they could contribute around her. Next season, she won’t be asked to dominate, it will be a requirement. Fortunately for Gonzaga, if ever there was a player to fit that role, it’s Ejim.

Before the season begins, however, Ejim has another goal — Olympic gold. Ejim is a rising star for the Canadian national team and looks poised to compete for our neighbors to the north at this summer’s Olympic Games in Paris. It’s a wonderful opportunity for her to not only showcase her skill set on a massive stage, but also to have an iron-sharpens-iron sort of offseason in which she only gets better by playing against the world’s best.

Around Ejim, the Zags have numerous question marks. How the players they’ve brought in fit into their roles will be paramount into how the team performs in 2024-25.

Gonzaga has established itself as the best mid-major program in the sport, though those within the program would argue with that classification. The thing is, the women’s game is far more top-heavy than the men’s. The best players go to the best programs at a much higher rate on the women’s side than on the men’s. For Gonzaga, that means taking what you can get and turning it into productivity,

The Zags will be asking new incoming guard transfers like UConn's Ines Bettencourt and Saint Mary’s Tayla Dalton to buoy the Zags by stepping up big in new roles. The Bulldog's depth will be further bolstered by two more transfers: Minnesota forward McKynnlie Dalan and junior college guard Vera Gunaydin.

Frankly speaking, the Gonzaga women are coming off their best season ever. They lost a ton of power, so it’s going to be hard to replicate that.

They probably won’t reach the same heights in 2024-25, but they do look poised to find themselves in a similar a position a year from now. Much like the men's team a year ago, it’s going to take a while for everyone to gel, but this program as a whole is in the best place it's ever been. ♦

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