Mid-Major Summer Reset: Gonzaga looks like a national title contender
With summer recruiting heating up and summer sessions underway, SI.com is taking a look at the state of each conference. Players are listed by what year they will be in the 2016–17 season. Click here for the American, ACC, A-10, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Mountain West, Pac-12 and the SEC. Below, we analyze the mid-major teams to know this season.
State of the top projected national contender: Gonzaga
The Zags are in pretty great shape. Let’s start with what they did at the end of last season: Downed a solid Saint Mary’s squad in the West Coast Conference championship game to clinch their 18th consecutive NCAA tournament bid, blew out a Seton Hall team coming off a Big East tournament title, ran over a Utah team led by a center picked in this year’s NBA draft lottery (Jakob Poeltl) and fell three points short of another trip to the Elite Eight. The best part? Gonzaga should be even better in 2016–17. While top scorer Kyle Wiltjer (undrafted), top rebounder Domantas Sabonis (picked in the lottery) and first-team all-glue-guy member Kyle Dranginis (out of eligibility) won’t be around, the Zags are retooling with a mix of talented returnees, promising recruits and coveted transfers. In the interest of not spoiling the subject of the next category of this piece, let’s focus on who’s coming back to Spokane and which freshmen will be on the roster. Redshirt sophomores Josh Perkins and Bryan Alberts and junior Silas Melson will provide stability in the backcourt, and veteran center Przemek Karnowski will man the block after appearing in just five games last season before undergoing back surgery. Incoming big man Zach Collins, a Scout.com top-40 prospect in the class of 2016, can space the floor and finish inside, and Gonzaga is also adding another four-star forward with range on his jumper (Killian Tillie) plus a three-star guard renowned for his shooting (Zach Norvell).
Notable newcomers: Jordan Mathews, Nigel Williams-Goss, Johnathan Williams III; Gonzaga
Gonzaga landed commitments from Williams-Goss and Williams III last May, but they had to sit out last season in compliance with NCAA transfer rules. A savvy facilitator with an advanced inside scoring repertoire, Williams-Goss left Washington after averaging a team-high 15.6 points per game and assisting on a third of his team’s baskets during Pac-12 play, the third-highest mark in the conference in 2015, according to Kenpom.com. Williams III, meanwhile, decamped from a Missouri program that won only nine games in his sophomore season. His offensive utility is less defined at this point, but he can make an impact as a defender, rebounder and shot-blocker. Then there’s Mathews, who transferred from California this spring with immediate eligibility after graduating. Mathews’s three-point shooting (he’s drilled 43% of his attempts over the last two seasons) offers a nice complement to Williams-Goss’s playmaking. With these three newcomers and the players mentioned above, Gonzaga looks capable of making a deep tournament run.
Notable departure: Kay Felder, Oakland
In March, Felder was trying to lead Oakland through the Horizon League conference tournament to clinch a trip to the NCAAs. Earlier this summer, he was acquired by the Cleveland Cavaliers in a reported $2.4 million purchase advocated by none other than LeBron James. Felder, who is just 5'9", will have to prove he can stick in the NBA, but by the time he left Rochester, Mich. this spring, he had already shown he was one of the best mid-major players in the country. Last season he led the nation by assisting on half of his teammates’ baskets, according to Kenpom.com. He also posted a nation-high mark in Offensive Win Shares, ranked fourth Offensive Box Plus/Minus and logged the third highest percentage of available minutes (90.6) in the Horizon during conference play, per Kenpom.com. It’s obvious the Golden Grizzlies will miss Felder, but his departure is a bummer for college hoops fans across the country. Felder was an electric scorer who didn’t shrink against tough competition; remember the 37 points he dropped in a near upset of then-No. 1 Michigan State last December? It’s a shame we never got to watch him play in the tourney.
Summer syllabus: Five other teams to watch
BYU: The Cougars won’t have Chase Fischer around to stretch the floor with his three-point shooting, and do-it-all stud Kyle Collinsworth is gone, too. But coach Dave Rose will have Nick Emery back after a promising freshman season. While BYU probably won’t challenge Gonzaga in the WCC, a return to the NCAAs seems like a possibility.
Harvard: You may have watched Yale upset Baylor in the tourney this year and wondered, ‘Hey where’s Harvard?’ Well, the Crimson failed to make the field for the first time since 2011, but it should hear its name called on Selection Sunday next March. Star point guard Siyani Chambers returns after missing last season with a torn ACL, and coach Tommy Amaker brings in a top-25 recruiting class.
Saint Mary’s: Like Harvard, Saint Mary’s didn’t get an invitation to the Big Dance last season. Unlike Harvard, the Gaels were very good. They beat Gonzaga twice, claimed a share of the WCC regular-season crown and ranked in the top 25 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to Kenpom.com. This year they return all five starters, and they should be able to make the Zags sweat in the conference title race.
Valparaiso: The Horizon League may have lost Felder to the NBA, but Alec Peters decided to return for another season in college after withdrawing from the draft and electing against jumping to a bigger program as a graduate transfer. His decision should ensure the Crusaders don’t suffer a major dip in their first season under new coach Matt Lottich, after losing Bryce Drew to Vanderbilt.
Wichita State: How good can the Shockers be without star guards Fred VanVleet and Ron Banker? Wichita State will need to navigate the Missouri Valley without a top-flight, veteran backcourt, but it seems a good bet that coach Gregg Marshall can craft a formidable squad without those two. He’ll lean on league freshman of the year Markis McDuffie, forwards Shaq Morris and Zach Brown and former Kansas transfer Conner Frankamp.