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No. 3 Gonzaga: Zags better than team that reached title game?

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Every day at Noon ET, we will be releasing an in-depth preview of one member of our Preseason Top 25.

Today we dive into No. 3 Gonzaga.


You would think that, being just 18 months removed from playing in the national title game as a No. 1 seed with a 37-1 record entering the final night of the 2016-17 season, Gonzaga would no longer have to justify where they are ranked in the preseason.

Because that was always the knock on Mark Few’s program, right?

They made that one run to the Elite 8 in 1999. Great. But in the first 17 seasons after Few took over for Dan Monson, he only managed to get the Zags passed the Sweet 16 once, and that was in 2015 when they only needed to dispatch No. 11-seed UCLA to get to the Elite 8. Before Nigel Williams-Goss, Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins helped carry the Zags to within six points of a national title, every single year that Gonzaga popped up ranked high in the preseason top 25, the hate would come out.

“The Zags are always overrated.”

“The media loves Gonzaga, but they’re always overrated because they beat up on bad WCC teams.”

“You’re an idiot if you actually think Gonzaga is better than [insert random high-major program ranked below them].”

I thought that line of thinking was done and dusted after everyone saw the Zags, who most experts believed was the best team in the country entering the 2017 NCAA tournament, played for a chance to cut down the nets in Glendale, but alas, that’s not true.

There are still plenty of people that believe Gonzaga being ranked in the top five is a disgrace to rankings, the sports of college basketball and life in general, which is why it gives me great pleasure to make this statement: Gonzaga is not only a consensus preseason top five once again, but they have the best frontcourt in all of college basketball and may just be the best team in the country.

Again.

Is this the year Mark Few can finally shut everyone up for good?

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GONZAGA WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

It is impossible to look at the frontline of the Zags and not come away impressed.

The name that you need to know is Rui Hachimura. A Japanese international of Beninese decent, Hachimura has been one of the best young players in FIBA World Cup qualifying after a season where he averaged just 11.2 points but really came on strong down the stretch. At 6-foot-8 and checking in at 230 pounds, Rui is a terrific athlete with the kind of length and body control that makes him an excellent finisher around the basket. His perimeter game is where the development is going to have to occur, but he shot 79.5 percent from the charity stripe on 132 attempts as a sophomore. The range will come.

He’ll be flanked by Killian Tillie, a French international that grew up with a background in volleyball. A terrific athlete that shot 47.9 percent from three, Tillie had one stretch late in the year where he made 22 of 26 threes over seven-game stretch, including 13 straight threes during the WCC tournament.

Rui Hachimura (Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

That duo is the ideal pairing in a frontcourt, and the athleticism — and coaching — is there to help make up for the fact that the Zags are losing their best defender in Johnathan Williams III.

Most college basketball fans will know those names, however.

The name they won’t know is Brandon Clarke, a redshirt junior that spent last season sitting out after transferring into Gonzaga from San Jose State. At 6-foot-8 and 210 pounds, he profiles as the best defensive presence on this team and, given the athletic ability of Rui and Tillie, should allow the Zags to play the three forwards together.

Mark Few does not necessarily have a reputation for being an elite defensive coach, but the staff does a terrific job of teaching their big men how to defend — particularly developing their ability to stay vertical when challenging shots around the rim — and whileI don’t think that this year will be a repeat of 2017, when they were the nation’s No. 1 defense according to KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, I do expect Gonzaga to be very, very good on that end of the floor.

RELATED: Expert Picks | CBT Podcast | Best non-conference games

BUT GONZAGA IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

Their backcourt is still somewhat unproven, as is their depth.

Zach Norvell Jr. put together some big games as a redshirt freshman last season, not the least of which was a 28-point outburst against Ohio State in the second round of the NCAA tournament. There was one stretch early in the season where he scored at least 17 points in six out of seven games, including a three-game stretch where he cracked 20 points against Creighton, Villanova and Washington back-to-back-to-back.

He was streaky at times, but he was also a freshman. I expect big things out of him this year.

The rest of their backcourt has more question marks.

Let’s start with Corey Kispert, a sophomore that will be looking to takeover the minutes vacated by Silas Melson. The 6-foot-6 wing started last season as a starter, logging a ton of minutes in games against Florida and Texas in the PK-80, but a sprained ankle seemed to hamper him all season long. Assuming he is healthy — and that the crux of his midseason struggles was the ankle and not, you know, his ability — he should fit in fine as a glue-guy at the three for this group. He defends, he can make threes and he is athletic enough to throw down a tip-dunk in traffic.

Then there is Geno Crandall, a grad transfer from North Dakota that was brought into the program to be a backup point guard to Josh Perkins but that profiles more as a scorer off the bench than anything else. The concern with Crandall is that he did not actually complete his undergraduate degree from North Dakota until mid-October, meaning that he is behind by a few weeks learning Gonzaga’s system, terminology, defensive assignments and how to play with the players on the roster.

That’s an issue because, reading the tea leaves, it’s pretty easy to determine that Crandall was brought in since Joel Ayayi and Greg Foster still need another season or two to be ready to contribute major minutes off the bench.

All that said, the biggest concern, at least for me, is Josh Perkins.

Josh Perkins (Harry How/Getty Images)

THE X-FACTOR

In a vacuum, Perkins is fine.

He’ll lead Gonzaga to a WCC title. They’ll end up as a high seed in the NCAA tournament. They’ll win 25 or 30 games. He’s good enough, and the pieces around him will be great enough, that it won’t have that much of an impact.

But at this point, is that enough for the Zags? They’ve been to a national title game. They’ve been a No. 1 seed. Anything short of a Final Four this year will probably be looked at as a disappointment, and to get to a Final Four, Gonzaga is going to have to beat the best teams in the country.

And my issue is whether or not Perkins, who averaged 12.3 points and 5.1 assists as a redshirt junior, can be as effective as he needs to be against the best teams in the country. Can he create against the best point guards in the sport? Is he improved as a decision-maker? Is he the leader on the floor that, say, Nigel Williams-Goss was?

If he is, then the Zags are a good bet to get back to the national title game.

But based on what I’ve seen out of him over the course of the last four seasons, I am not convinced that he is.

And if there is a reason to wonder whether or not Gonzaga can live up to the lofty goals they enter the season with, that is it.

2018-19 OUTLOOK

The criticism that Gonzaga is going to face come Selection Sunday is always going to center around the WCC schedule they have to play as a member of the league.

By the time that the nation at-large starts paying attention to college basketball, Gonzaga is more or less done playing games that actually matter. It is what it is. There’s a reason that Gonzaga made a push to try and get into the Mountain West this offseason, and there’s a reason that Mark Few is working to get the WCC league schedule reduced from 18 to 16 games.

But understand this: While you are not paying attention, the Zags are going to play a non-conference schedule that will be as tough as anyone’s. They play Texas A&M, a game that looked much tougher when it was scheduled than it does as of today. They play in the Maui Invitational, where they will get either Arizona or Iowa State in the second round and, basketball gods willing, Duke in the tournament’s title game. They play at Creighton. They play Washington, who might be the best team in the Pac-12 this season. They play Tennessee in Phoenix. They play at North Carolina.

We are going to know everything we need to know about the Zags by Dec. 15th, and while a Final Four run is never a given — that’s the beauty of March Madness — I would be shocked if Gonzaga doesn’t enter WCC play leaving no doubt as to whether or not they are one of the top four teams in college basketball.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 4 Duke
No. 5 Villanova
No. 6 Nevada
No. 7 Tennessee
No. 8 Virginia
No. 9 North Carolina
No. 10 Auburn
No. 11 Kansas State
No. 12 Virginia Tech
No. 13 Michigan State
No. 14 Florida State
No. 15 TCU
No. 16 UCLA
No. 17 West Virginia
No. 18 Oregon
No. 19 Syracuse
No. 20 LSU
No. 21 Mississippi State
No. 22 Clemson
No. 23 Michigan
No. 24 N.C. State
No. 25 Marquette

Thursday’s Things To Know: No. 6 Michigan State outlasts Nebraska, Ja Morant dunks all over the OVC and the Pac-12 has a sole leader

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There wasn’t a matchup of top-25 teams Thursday, but there were competitive games across the country, starting in Lincoln with Michigan State and Nebraska and ending in Tempe with Oregon State and Arizona State. Pl, there was a dunk that may have qualified as national emergency. Here’s what you need to know:

NO. 6 MICHIGAN STATE STAYS PERFECT IN THE B1G WITH WIN AT NEBRASKA

Nebraska looked like it had the sixth-ranked Spartans on the ropes in Lincoln with the score knotted at 44 just inside the midpoint of the second half. Then, though, Michigan State ripped off a 7-0 run and never looked back – despite an ugly final minute – to claim a 70-64 win over the Huskers to move to 16-2 on the year and 7-0 in the Big Ten.

The win is most notable for the Spartans as it once again came without the services of Joshua Langford or Nick Ahrens, both of whom continue to be sidelined with injuries. With both on the shelf, Cassius Winston put together a game to bolster his player of the year candidacy, scoring a career-best 29 points on 9 of 15 shooting while dishing out six assists and grabbing three rebounds. Winston doesn’t have the game that always pops off the TV screen, but he’s the type of veteran point guard that can help propel a team to a national title, especially if Langford comes back healthy and productive.

For the Huskers, it’s certainly not a bad loss given Michigan State’s profile, but the opportunity cost has to sting. Last year Tim Miles’ team racked up wins, but missed out on the tournament because not enough of them were of the quality variety. Here, they had a top-10 team staggered with less than 10 minutes to play at home but couldn’t close the deal. The good news for them is they’ve already got a couple of nice wins on the resume, but most importantly the B1G isn’t the wasteland it was last year, leaving them with bountiful opportunities to pick up meaningful victories before March. To do that, though, they can’t have James Palmer, Jr. going 6 of 21 from the floor like he did against the Spartans. To Palmer’s credit, though, he got to the line 11 times and made every attempt to finish with 24 points while grabbing eight rebounds and recording three assists. Shooting 5 of 26 (19.6 percent) from 3-point range won’t win you too many games, either.

 

STAY OUT OF JA MORANT’S WAY

If you wanna jump with Ja Morant, God bless you, but it ain’t going to work out well for you. Eastern Illinois learned that lesson Thursday as Morant unleashed yet another must-see dunk.

On top of that, the future lottery pick had 27 points and nine assists while shooting 11 of 16 from the floor and 4 of 5 from 3-point range. He’s an unsolvable problem for the OVC.

 

WASHINGTON IS ALONE IN FIRST IN THE PAC-12

Congratulations to the Washington Huskies, the last remaining undefeated in Pac-12 play. It may not be an honor, but it’s something, at least.

Mike Hopkins’ team blasted Stanford (80-64) while Arizona lost at home to Oregon (59-54) and Oregon State was behind big before making things tight in Tempe and eventually losing to Arizona State (70-67), which has now won three of four. There’s been plenty written about the Pac-12, but the league continues to do itself damage, most notable with the Wildcats taking a loss in Tuscon to a depleted Ducks team. That’s not going to do much for the conference’s reputation or their own NCAA tournament resume.

Zach Norvell leads No. 5 Gonzaga over Loyola Marymount 73-55

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SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Zach Norvell Jr. scored 17 points and No. 5 Gonzaga used a stout defense to beat Loyola Marymount 73-55 on Thursday night, the eighth consecutive win for the Bulldogs since a pair of losses knocked them out of the top spot in The AP Top 25.

Brandon Clarke added 13 points, Corey Kispert 12 and Rui Hachimura 10 for Gonzaga (17-2, 4-0 West Coast), which beat Loyola Marymount for the 20th straight time. The Zags have won 18 straight games at home.

James Batemon led Loyola Marymount (13-5, 1-3) with 12 points.

Loyola used a slow-down offense and stingy defense to keep the scoring low, and it mostly accomplished that goal.

Gonzaga, which averages 92 points a game, led just 17-16 midway through the first half.

The Zags went on a 19-6 run the rest of the half to take a 36-22 lead at halftime. The Lions shot only 36 percent in the first and committed 11 turnovers.

A 3-pointer by Norvell highlighted a 14-2 Gonzaga run to open the second half that lifted the Bulldogs to a 50-24 lead. Meanwhile, the Lions were missing eight of their first 10 shots.

Loyola Marymount made just five of its first 20 shots in the second half, and fell behind 61-35 with less than 8 minutes left.

BIG PICTURE

Loyola Marymount: The Lions opened the season 11-1, but have dropped off since … The Lions ranked 13th in the NCAA in defense at 61.2 points per game … Their last win in this lop-sided series was in 2010. They have not won in Spokane since 1991 … The Lions have already surpassed last season’s 11 wins.

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs are cruising toward another WCC title, outscoring conference foes by nearly 30 points per game… The Zags suffered back-to-back losses to No. 3 Tennessee and at No. 13 North Carolina in mid-December and have not lost since … They lead the nation in field goal shooting at 52.6 percent and are second in scoring at 92.2 points per game … Gonzaga and Marquette are the only programs with both men’s and women’s teams in the Top 15.

UP NEXT

Loyola Marymount hosts Pepperdine on Saturday.

Gonzaga plays at last place Portland on Saturday.

Cassius Winston’s career-high 29 lifts No. 6 Spartans over Huskers

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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Four nights after Tom Izzo called out Cassius Winston for his poor play in Michigan State’s previous game, the Spartans’ star point guard responded better than his coach would have expected.

Winston scored a career-high 29 points to go over 1,000 for his career, had six assists and played tough defense on Glynn Watson Jr. while leading No. 6 Michigan State past Nebraska 70-64 on Thursday night.

“I told him before the game, ‘You’re going to get measured on how you bounce back,’ ” Izzo said.

Winston more than passed the test.

“Cassius, the way he ran that whole thing, he was like a quarterback dissecting a defense,” Izzo said.

In a win at Penn State on Sunday, Winston had seven turnovers, and his 11 points were his fewest since Florida held him to 10 on Dec. 8. Izzo told reporters it was one of the worst games Winston had played in his three seasons.

Of the Spartans’ first 18 field goals against Nebraska, Winston scored eight of them and had assists on five others. He held Watson, the Huskers’ hottest player the last week, to 3-of-13 shooting from the field and eight points.

Izzo’s criticism motivated him, he said.

“Just get back on track, playing at the level I was playing at,” Winston said. “I want to play at the highest standard, my best ability. I’ve got to do that for this team and put us in the best situation.”

Michigan State (16-2, 7-0) won its 11th straight game overall and extended its school-record Big Ten winning streak to 19 games. The Cornhuskers (13-5, 3-4) had their school-record 20-game home win streak end.

Nick Ward added 15 points and 10 rebounds for his second straight double-double. He also made his first 3-pointer of the season and second of his career.

“That should keep him happy for a week or 10 days,” Izzo said.

The Spartans led by 12 points in the final 2 minutes, but Nebraska cut the lead to four twice before Matt McQuaid made a pair of free throws for his first points with 14.2 seconds to put the game away.

Nebraska shot a season-low 32.8 percent and was just 5 of 26 on 3-pointers, 1 of 12 in the second half.

“I wasn’t very pleased with our offense in any way, shape or form,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said.

James Palmer, who led Nebraska with 24 points, struggled mightily from the field, going 6 of 21, but he made all 11 of his free throws.

“Palmer’s a good player, and I feel like I did a pretty good job on him,” McQuaid said. “I just tried to do what I could. He’s a bigger, more physical guard. I tried to get a couple charges, but things weren’t going my way. So I had to figure out different ways to guard him.”

Nebraska had hoped to build off its win at No. 25 Indiana on Monday night but couldn’t get going. The Huskers were trying for their first win over a top-10 opponent in nine tries.

“You need to build and play from the front against these teams,” Miles said.

He found no consolation in playing the Spartans close for most of the game, which had 11 lead changes and six ties.

“There are no moral victories,” Miles said. “I’m utterly mad and disappointed.”

BIG PICTURE

Michigan State: This was a gut-check win for the Spartans, who were without Joshua Langford (ankle) for a fifth straight game and Kyle Ahrens (back) for a second in a row.

Nebraska: The Huskers were feeling pretty good about themselves after an impressive win at No. 25 Indiana on Monday, and they had an amped standing-room crowd on hand. But they could never find rhythm until it was too late against the nation’s No. 3 team in field-goal defense.

HE SAID IT

“We were paranoid of this game. They didn’t make shots tonight. Those things happen sometimes. Tim’s got a great team that’s going to be an NCAA Tournament team, and I hope they keep on winning now.” — Izzo.

UP NEXT

Michigan State hosts No. 19 Maryland on Monday.

Nebraska visits Rutgers on Monday.

WATCH: Ja Morant can’t be stopped

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The Ohio Valley Conference is just not equipped to deal with Ja Morant.

The Murray State guard just keeps dunking on anyone and everyone that stands in his way, the latest victim coming Thursday night at Eastern Illinois.

There’s just so much to love about this dunk. The athleticism. The explosiveness. The aggressiveness. The ferocity. It’s thunder meeting lightning at the rim.

If there’s someone who can stop Morant, a likely top-10 pick in June, it sure ain’t in the OVC.

UCLA, USC meet amid rocky seasons for crosstown rivals

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — A fired coach. A transfer. Suspensions. Injuries. UCLA and Southern California have experienced it all barely halfway through the season.

Things began promisingly enough for the Bruins. They were an AP Top 25 team and were predicted to finish second in the Pac-12 before early consecutive losses to ranked Michigan State and North Carolina knocked them out. Then came stunning defeats at home to mid-majors Belmont and Liberty. Those precipitated the biggest shocker of all: coach Steve Alford’s firing on New Year’s Eve.

Murry Bartow was quickly tabbed as interim coach for the Bruins (10-7, 3-1 Pac-12). They’ve won three out of four games under him.

“We had a lot of ups and downs,” UCLA freshman Moses Brown said, “but I think we caught our stride and the sky is the limit for us.”

USC was predicted to finish fifth in a weakened Pac-12. The Trojans got off to a 5-2 start before dropping four in a row. They regrouped to reel off four straight wins, including a home sweep to open conference play. But they dropped a pair on the road, where freshman Kevin Porter Jr. got suspended last weekend.

In the midst of rocky seasons, the crosstown rivals meet Saturday at Galen Center. The Bruins have won four in a row in the series and are 8-4 at USC’s arena since it opened.

“Coming off a two-game losing streak, we’re kind of hoping this is a game that we can bounce back,” USC’s Nick Rakocevic said. “We want to be put in a good position for the rest of the Pac-12.”

Both teams would likely need to win the Pac-12 tournament title to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

Last March, the Bruins played in the First Four for the first time in school history and lost. The Trojans were snubbed by the selection committee despite finishing second in the Pac-12 for the first time in 25 years after losing twice to UCLA.

“We play UCLA twice, but there’s 16 other games. You have to do well the rest of the league,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “Whether you win or lose these games, yes, it’s great for a rivalry, it’s great for another win in your conference, but it’s a long Pac-12 season. We try to keep that in perspective no matter who we play even if it’s UCLA.”

The Trojans (9-8, 2-2) have played over half their games with eight or fewer scholarship players because of injuries and the recent transfer of Jordan Usher, who was suspended before he left.

“Nothing surprises us at this point,” Enfield said. “The injuries and distractions have had a significant impact on our team.”

Porter was back practicing with the Trojans this week, but he hasn’t been cleared to play in games.

“He’s working on some things off the court. He has very clear expectations that he has to meet,” Enfield said. “As he progresses, we will reevaluate his status.”

Bartow said the Bruins will prepare as if Porter will play Saturday. Before his suspension, Porter missed time with a leg injury.

USC’s Bennie Boatwright, a local product who was recruited by UCLA, has been on an offensive tear in his last seven games. He scored a career-high 37 points in an overtime loss at Oregon State and is averaging a team-leading 17.1 points. The Bruins are led by Kris Wilkes at 17.3 points a game.

“Inside, they’ve got some really, really good players,” said Bartow, who has the Bruins playing at a faster pace and zipping the ball around.

One of the intriguing matchups on Saturday will be the 6-foot-11 Rakocevic and Brown, who at 7-1 is the tallest player at UCLA in decades. Rakocevic averages 14.9 points and a league-leading 9.5 rebounds. Brown averages 11.9 points and 9.0 rebounds

“It’s going to be fun going against somebody like that,” Rakocevic said.

A famous name associated with the rivalry won’t be on the court.

USC’s Chuck O’Bannon, the son of former UCLA star Charles O’Bannon, is expected to seek a medical redshirt. The sophomore broke his pinky finger in practice in November, had surgery, got the cast off in December and it hasn’t healed properly. He’s still has pain, too, Enfield said.

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