Gonzaga men's basketball looking strong as WCC play looms

click to enlarge Exciting freshman and savvy vets have Gonzaga looking strong as conference play looms
Libby Kamrowski
Corey Kispert, from King's High School in suburban Seattle, is starting as a freshman.

The follow-up to Gonzaga's greatest season ever is going about as well as any Gonzaga season before it.

Freshmen have stepped in, veterans have stepped up, and the team just keeps on winning. Under head coach Mark Few the Zags have won 81.6 percent of the games they've played, which gives Few the highest winning percentage among active coaches with at least one year of experience. Sitting at 10-2 on the season, with a relatively easy slate of West Coast Conference games to come, Gonzaga is on pace to match Few's all-time win percentage.

"I've been doing this long enough and Gonzaga's been really, really successful," Few says. "It's fairly standard, I'd say."

Standard, sure. But it's fair to say that there were questions coming into this year. The biggest of which was how Few and his staff would replace the four quality players they lost from the season prior. They've done it with freshmen.

Washington's own Corey Kispert, from King's High School in suburban Seattle, stepped into the starting lineup on Day One. Kispert scored 10 points against Texas Southern. It was the most by a Gonzaga freshman in a season opener since Domantas Sabonis. Aside from an ankle injury suffered on Nov. 29, which kept him out for two games, Kispert has had a stellar start to his collegiate career.

Against then No. 25-ranked Creighton on Dec. 1, fellow freshman Zach Norvell Jr. replaced Kispert in the starting lineup. Norvell missed all five of his shots in the first half and Gonzaga trailed by seven points at halftime. He's still adjusting his shot to the college game, but appears to be a leader well beyond his years.

"He's got a great personality," Few says of Norvell. "Very charismatic and very gregarious."

In the second half against Creighton Norvell erupted for 21 points. His scoring and energy helped lead Gonzaga to a blowout victory, 91-74. That was the first of three straight games in which Norvell scored 21 or more points.

The steady play of Kispert and the streaky shot of Norvell have been a huge boost for the Zags this season. As has Josh Perkins' emergence as one of college basketball's best point guards.

Exciting freshman and savvy vets have Gonzaga looking strong as conference play looms
Libby Kamrowski
Josh Perkins is shooting 50 percent from long-range so far this season.

Perkins was a starter as a freshman and sophomore, but with elite talent all around him on the roster his role in the offense was limited. This season he is Gonzaga's second-leading scorer, averaging 14.3 points per game, and he's been lighting it up from three-point range.

Before this season Perkins had made 37.6 percent of his three-point shots. This season he's shooting more, and making 50 percent of them. It's hard to imagine Perkins can stay this unbelievably hot for an entire season, but then again it's not like the West Coast Conference is full of great defensive teams.

It's actually been a bit of a disappointing year for most of the teams in Gonzaga's league. Archrival Saint Mary's came into the season ranked in the AP Top 25. After back-to-back losses to Washington State and Georgia, though, the Gaels fell out and haven't been back.

This was supposed to be Saint Mary's season. League coaches even picked the Gaels over the Zags in the preseason poll. A foolish look now, of course, but reasonable at the time. They expected this offensive juggernaut of a team, loaded with seniors, to be even better than last season's team that went 29-5. Turns out they may not be better, but rather just as good.

Gonzaga hosts the Gaels on Jan. 18 and plays at Saint Mary's on Feb. 10.

As for Brigham Young University, the lone WCC team to defeat Gonzaga last season, things are good only because expectations weren't very high. The Cougars have missed out on the last two NCAA tournaments. An early season loss, at home, to Texas-Arlington put them on a path to miss the Big Dance for the third straight season.

The Zags host the Cougars on Feb. 3 and end the season at BYU on Feb. 24.

The rest of the WCC is, by and large, worse than normal. As of press time, only half of the league's teams had a winning record. Only San Diego, under third-year head coach Lamont Smith, who replaced former Gonzaga assistant Bill Grier, has lived up to or exceeded expectations.

The Toreros' turnaround under Smith was accelerated by a pair of newcomers named Isaiah. Former Portland State Viking Isaiah Pineiro is the team's leading scorer and rebounder, but Utah transfer Isaiah Wright has become their best player. The junior point guard is the early favorite to win WCC Newcomer of the Year. (Gonzaga's Nigel Williams-Goss took home that honor last season.)

The Zags host the Toreros on Feb. 1 and play in San Diego on Feb. 22.

All three of those teams, along with Gonzaga, went 8-2 over their first 10 games of the season. They're quality college basketball teams. One or two of them might even join Gonzaga in the NCAA tournament. But, as is always the case, the WCC is Gonzaga's league to lose. Which, again, doesn't seem likely. ♦

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