College basketball: Gonzaga's Mark Few discusses return of key players, challenging schedule
Gonzaga has historically played a national non-conference schedule but the Zags, ranked No. 1 in NCAA.com's Power 36 released this week, could end up having one of the toughest slates they’ve ever put together.
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The Zags will play at North Carolina (No. 8 in the Power 36) in a rematch of the 2017 national championship game (the first of a home-and-home series), play Tennessee (No. 4) in a neutral-court game in Phoenix, host potential Pac-12 favorite Washington (No. 29), travel to Creighton (always a tough road stop), host Texas A&M (which got crushed by NBA draft departures but still could be an NCAA tournament team out of the SEC) — and they are in the loaded Maui Invitational.
The Maui Invitational bracket hasn’t been announced yet but the Zags join Power 36-ranked teams Duke (No. 6), Auburn (No. 11) and San Diego State (No. 33). Iowa State, Arizona, Illinois and Xavier fill out the field.
The Cyclones are expected to challenge for a top-four finish in the Big 12, Xavier should contend in the top half of the Big East, Arizona is in the upper echelon of the Pac-12, and Illinois is likely to improve from its bottom-third position in the Big Ten.
“I’ve never taken my team into the Dean Dome and it will be great to experience that,’’ said Few. “We may even add one more game to this (schedule).’’
The Zags’ optimism stems from the return of four key players: Rui Hachimura, Zach Norvell, Killian Tillie and Josh Perkins.
Few said the communication went well with the players and their families as none of the four even bothered to look at the NBA draft and test the earyl-entry process.
“We do have some really, really nice pieces coming back,’’ said Few. “We do have a lot of experience coming back.’’
A year ago, the Zags lost Nigel Williams-Goss and Zach Collins early to the draft.
“If we get Nigel and Zach back, we’re probably one of the preseason favorites last year to get back to the Final Four and compete for the championship,’’ Few said.
Hachimura continues to grow as a player and Few said the forward is realizing how much he can impact the game in a variety of ways. Tillie, who re-injured his hip in warmups prior to the Sweet 16 loss to Florida State and couldn’t go just minutes before tipoff, is continuing to learn how to play off the ball and create his own shot.
Norvell has been a big-time shooter but he still needs to work on creating for others. Few said he wants to see Norvell develop his in-the-lane shot that helped Villanova’s Jalen Brunson become so successful last season.
Perkins had offseason shoulder surgery and has been shut down. But once healthy, the assumption is that Perkins will be the impact lead guard the Zags need and have had at that position.
Newcomer Brandon Clarke, a 6-8 forward, has surprised the Zags with how well he can move.
“He’s somebody who is going to have a big impact from day one,’’ said Few. “He can help us in a variety of ways. He’s a quick jumper and gets up and blocks shots. He’s got a nice touch around the basket.’’