NCAA Basketball: Gonzaga Kraziness in the Kennel

Year 1 of the post-Drew Timme era will be even more of a challenge for No. 11 Gonzaga following a knee injury to projected starter Steele Venters that will keep the 6-foot-7 wing out for the season. The injury, which was first reported by The Messenger, will leave the Bulldogs without their most-proven collegiate 3-point shooter in advance of their season opener against Yale on Friday.

Venters hit 40.3% of his attempts from beyond the arc in three seasons at Eastern Washington while developing into one of the top volume shooters at the mid-major level. He transferred to Gonzaga after the Eagles' season ended with a second-round loss in the NIT and was expected to play a key role as the Zags work to replace three of their top four scorers from a 31-6 team that reached the Elite Eight.

Without Venters, the Zags will have to reconfigure their rotation quickly during tune-up games against Yale and Eastern Oregon before the intensity ratchets up with a showdown against No. 3 Purdue on Nov. 20 to begin the Maui Invitational. As is custom, 25th-year coach Mark Few has assembled a difficult nonconference slate to help his team build a resume before WCC play begins.

The reality of Gonzaga's front-loaded schedule increases the urgency to determine a lineup and offensive pecking order for a team that was already undergoing a significant transition even before Venters' injury.

A chance for Dusty Stromer

There is no Jalen Suggs or Chet Holmgren-type of generational freshman prospect on this Gonzaga team. Instead, the Zags focused their talent acquisition efforts on landing 247Sports' No. 10 ranked transfer class, featuring Venters, former Wyoming star big man Graham Ike and prized ex-Creighton point guard Ryan Nembhard.

But there is an intriguing freshman talent who should have ample opportunity to shine amid the injury to Venters. Dusty Stromer ranked as a four-star prospect and the No. 62 player in the 2023 recruiting class, per 247Sports, and is regarded as a skilled 3-point shooter. At 6-6 and with a similar frame to Venters, he could see more minutes than previously expected.

Venters started over Stromer in Gonzaga's exhibition victory against Lewis-Clark State last week, but it would be no surprise if Stromer steps into the starting lineup now. Few said after the 96-58 exhibition win that he's been pushing Stromer hard through "some freshman mental errors and stuff like that" but was complimentary of the strides Stromer is making.

"He scored it pretty well in high school, so hopefully we can grow that part of his game," Few said. "He's another one of those guys that has a great feel for the game, can really defend, knows how to play."

Deeper into the bench

Most of Gonzaga's depth is in the frontcourt, where players such as Ben Gregg and Braden Huff will battle for minutes behind Ike. Few also has a pair of intriguing new international forwards in Pavle Stosic of Serbia and Jun Seok Yeo of South Korea.

But in terms of true perimeter weapons, the Bulldogs are lean behind Nembhard and fellow projected starter Nolan Hickman. If Stromer steps into the starting lineup, that would leave Croatian freshman Luka Krajnovic as the lone non-starter on scholarship to be listed as a guard on the team's official roster.

Krajnovic logged 20 minutes off the bench in the exhibition victory, finishing with seven assists and no turnovers to go with two points on 1 of 3 shooting. Few could be left with little choice but to deploy Krajnovic in a key rotational role as a freshman.

Rebuilding year?

Saint Mary's was picked to win the WCC over Gonzaga, marking a rare instance in which the Zags aren't the preseason favorite in a league they've dominated for over a quarter-century. Yet, the Bulldogs are still highly ranked in the AP Top 25 (No. 11), in Gary Parrish's Top 25 And 1 (No. 19) and at (No. 5).

Few's starting back court of Nembhard and Nolan Hickman should be among the best in the country. Graduate forward Anton Watson is also a known commodity and reliable veteran, and Ike has the potential to be a star. The big man averaged 19.5 points and 9.6 rebounds in the 2021-22 season at Wyoming before missing all of last season due to a foot injury. 

The injury to Venters merely underscores the questions surrounding the rest of the roster. Gonzaga ranked 20th last season in minutes continuity, per KenPom. Once the numbers shape up, it would be surprising if they are in the top 200 of that category this season. But the Zags have reached at least the Sweet 16 in eight consecutive NCAA Tournaments for a reason. 

Few has built a monster, and the departure of Timme along with the bad injury luck to start the season will provide him a stage to show once again why he is regarded as a top-five coach in college basketball.