SPOKANE, Wash. — When No. 12 Gonzaga lost four key players from a team that finished as the national runner up last season, many wondered if the Bulldogs would play up to their usual standard this year.
Wonder no more.
Three freshmen and two sophomores have helped the Zags (10-2) pick up right where they left off.
Corey Kispert became the first true freshman to start his first Gonzaga game since Elias Harris in 2009. Redshirt freshmen Zach Norvell Jr. is a scoring machine, while freshman Jacob Larsen is contributing in the post. Sophomores Killian Tillie and Rui Hachimura are also bringing solid production in the front court.
“We’re a lot better than I thought we were, initially,” junior guard Josh Perkins said. “We haven’t peaked yet.”
Kispert played well in starting the first seven games but hurt his ankle against Incarnate Word and has been slowed the past few games. Norvell replaced him in the starting lineup and is scoring nearly 18 points per game over his past six games.
“He’s a young guy who is getting more confident and more comfortable,” Perkins said. “It’s scary.”
Norvell is the first Zag to record 20-point games in his first two starts since Josh Heytvelt in 2006.
“He plays with big, tough Chicago swagger,” said Kispert, who expects to be fully recovered by the time conference play begins next week.
Norvell said he is “just staying confident and sticking with it.”
“The guys always having confidence in me is really big,” Norvell said. “I keep taking my shots and have confidence they’re going in.”
Coach Mark Few is seeking more from Norvell.
“I’ve been looking for growth on the defensive end and growth in shot selection and kind of understanding what’s good and what isn’t so good,” Few said.
Asked if Norvell would remain in the starting five after Kispert is healthy, Few gave a stock answer.
“We’ll see how it all plays out,” Few said. “I never have been really concerned with starting. I know my kids are, other people are. It’s not that big a deal to me.”
Among the other young Zags, Tillie is averaging nearly 12 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. Hachimura, who is from Japan, is averaging almost 10 per game. Larsen, a 6-foot-11 center, scored 10 points and grabbed five rebounds against No. 1 Villanova
The young Zags are augmented by seniors Silas Melson and Johnathan Williams and Perkins.
“We’ve got a lot of new faces here,” Melson said. “We’ve handled it well.”
Through 12 games, the young Zags have led the team in scoring seven times and in rebounding nine times.
Tillie led them in both categories when he scored 27 points and grabbed 10 rebounds against IUPUI on Monday.
Kispert said the young Zags are seeing more playing time because of the early departures after last season of Nigel Williams-Goss and Zack Collins, who helped lead Gonzaga to the national title game, where the Bulldogs fell to North Carolina.
“It was kind of out of necessity that we filled in and stepped in,” Kispert said. “We feel like we were ready.”
Few noted that young players making big contributions are nothing new for the Zags. Collins was a freshman who came off the bench last season and was still an NBA lottery pick.
“That’s the nature of the beast right now in college basketball,” Few said. “Guys have got to come in and they’ve got to be ready.”
At Gonzaga, the expectations come even earlier than at other perennial Top 25 programs.
That’s because the Bulldogs typically play a brutal non-conference schedule to make up for the fact that the West Coast Conference is lightly regarded.
This season, Gonzaga has already played Ohio State, Florida and Texas in the PK80 Invitational in Portland, Oregon, followed by games against No. 25 Creighton at home, against No. 1 Villanova in New York City and at Washington.
“In those games we are playing against the top of the heap as far as athleticism and talent,” Few said. “That’s why we schedule those games.”
“It’s like an early March Madness for us,” Perkins added.