Gonzaga junior forward Kris Jenkins has added muscle and shed some fat and there is little doubt that he and classmate Nate Britt – who committed to North Carolina before the season – form quite a tandem.
But one key to the Eagles’ 11-0 start has been the play of unheralded center Will Rassman, who had played little before this season. Rassman has signed a letter-of-intent to play for Loyola (Md.), but it remained to be seen if he could produce when thrust into the starting lineup.
The 6-foot-8 senior, though, has not disappointed. Rassman is physical and effective in the post and on Thursday night put together a solid all-around performance, with eight points, 12 rebounds, four blocks and three steals as fourth-ranked Gonzaga beat ninth-ranked O’Connell, 50-36.
“He’s an example of a guy who puts in the work and it pays off at the end,” said Gonzaga Coach Steve Turner, whose team is traveling Friday to Wheeling, W.Va., where it plays Whitney Young of Chicago in the Cancer Research Classic, a 10 p.m. game Saturday on ESPNU. “In August, he did not take off. AAU is done, summer league is done and guys take off. He hit the weight room and came back 15 pounds stronger. He wanted to play. We were telling him all offseason he was going to have to play big if we’re going to make a run at it.
“We’ve had a couple nights where Kris maybe hasn’t gotten going scoring and Will has stepped up. And he’s doing the one thing I ask all our big guys to do, which is rebound. And he’s given us a good post presence on defense.”
On Thursday, Gonzaga limited O’Connell to seven offensive rebounds and just two second-chance points. The Knights rarely got good looks in the paint and Rassman continually bothered players who attacked the basket. On offense, he knows his role as a secondary scorer and averages 9.1 points, with a season-high of 17.
“Most of the focus is on Kris and Nate and I look to exploit that and use that to my [advantage] to go backdoor and play under the radar,” Rassman said. “Last year I was behind Ben [Dickinson] and Oliver [Ellison]. This year, being a senior, it’s my job to step up as a big man and help my team.”