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In “new world” of college basketball, Gonzaga has mastered roster retooling

May 12, 2019

Gonzaga assistant basketball coach Tommy Lloyd called it a new world. ESPN analysts Fran Fraschilla and Seth Greenberg labeled it college basketball free agency.

There was a time not all that long ago when Gonzaga’s roster was reasonably stable annually, typically stocked with several experienced players, perhaps a sit-out transfer and the incoming recruiting class.

Nowadays, prominent coaches across the country fret over the possibility of losing key players to the NBA draft while scanning the transfer portal in search of potential immediate and long-term replacements.

“The offseason has definitely changed and has been evolving over the last eight to 10 years,” Lloyd said. “It seems like the last few years have been full steam ahead. It used to be you’d get through a season and have a really good idea who was coming back.

“The amount of player movement has increased so much. We don’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out why it’s happening, but how to navigate in this new world.”

The Zags have navigated quite well. They face unique challenges this spring, with five players declaring for the draft and the real possibility that four won’t be wearing a Gonzaga uniform next season. They’ve assembled a six-player recruiting class – ranked No. 2 by Rivals.com – and Texas A&M grad transfer Admon Gilder is big addition to the backcourt.

They’re probably not done. Word filters out daily of a few players announcing their intention to transfer. Cal grad transfer Jordan Mathews committed to Gonzaga in late June 2016. Geno Crandall committed last July.

“April is the busiest month and most of May is similar,” Gonzaga assistant Brian Michaelson said. “With the new rules, and it coincides with us having more and more legit NBA-level guys, the amount of guys in the draft and those considering staying in the draft has risen dramatically.”

Welcome to the era of sit-out transfers, grad transfers and players exiting early for the pros.

“For all Division I schools, but especially programs at the highest level, the spring has become free agency,” Fraschilla said. “You have players that are coming and going. Where Gonzaga really benefits is they already have in place the ability to recruit high school seniors, they’ve found an occasional juco guy, but a large number of transfers, and (they’ve worked) the international market. They’re probably more prepared because they’ve had to be creative.”

Michaelson recalls graduate transfers weren’t a factor when he joined the staff as an administrative assistant in 2008. The number of transfers, both grad and sit-out, has exploded this decade. There were 17 grad transfers in 2011 when the rules became more player-friendly, compared to 124 last year. More than 700 players have opted to transfer since the start of the 2018-19 season.

Those figures, along with this season’s 233 NBA draft early entries (175 college underclassmen), make assembling a roster considerably different than 2012, Greenberg’s final season as Virginia Tech’s coach.

“There’s so much more uncertainty,” Greenberg said. “Going back further when I was at Long Beach State (from 1991-96), I redshirted every single player except one, Lucious Harris (who had a 12-year NBA career). I wouldn’t have had any of those guys (for their senior years).”

Redshirting, combined with an accumulation of summer school hours, puts players that much closer to an undergraduate degree and an opportunity to move on as a grad transfer. Coaches at low- and mid-major schools are susceptible to a double whammy: Standout veteran players transferring to power programs and/or an occasional superstar declaring for the NBA draft.

Gonzaga constructed all five of the program’s 30-win squads since 2013 by mining high school players, international talent and transfers, both sit-out (Kyle Wiltjer, Nigel Williams-Goss, Johnathan Williams) and grad (Drew Barham, Byron Wesley, Mathews, Crandall).

One emerging factor has been a sharp increase in the number of Zags testing the NBA waters. Of the 13 Zags to declare for the draft, 10 have been since 2013.

“They did it for so long with some high-level players, but mostly three- and four-year guys,” Fraschilla said. “It’s a compliment to Gonzaga basketball. All of a sudden because of the level of their talent, even internationally, they’re no longer signing Ronny Turiaf and having 99 percent of college basketball say, ‘Who is that kid?’ There are no longer any secrets. (2019 recruit Oumar) Ballo is a monster, and people are quite aware of him.”

Five Zags declared for the draft last month, but Filip Petrusev indicated to the coaching staff he plans on returning for his sophomore season. Killian Tillie has until May 29 to decide if he’s turning pro or returning for his senior season. Zach Norvell Jr. told reporters after a workout Thursday for the Atlanta Hawks he intends to stay in the draft.

“That’s what you want,” Michaelson said. “Our goal is for every guy to play pro basketball. If those guys are truly ready to go to the NBA and they have guaranteed money and can help their franchise, that’s great.”

A crystal ball or mind-reading skills would come in handy for some coaches juggling 13 scholarships. They try to get the best read on whether early entry players will stay in the draft or come back to school. Meanwhile, available transfers are selecting their future schools every day.

“If I was a grad transfer, no way I make a commitment until May 29,” Greenberg said, “so you can see who’s available, who’s gone and what is your best fit.”

Fraschilla said the high number of players in the transfer portal “forces coaches, and this is a healthy thing, to be more particular in the original recruiting process and evaluate their talent better, which isn’t easy with the lack of time they’re on the road recruiting now.

“It also forces coaches to continue recruiting them while they’re on campus. It’s a total circus, but good programs will navigate it. It’s part of this freedom of movement for student-athletes.”

The Zags have experienced that movement in both directions, but they’ve still managed to put together the best stretch in program history.