College basketball player of the year candidates Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke put up their usual big numbers on Thursday night as Gonzaga walloped Fairleigh Dickinson 87-49 in an NCAA Tournament first-round game. Potential NBA first-round draft pick Killian Tillie swooped in for a highlight-reel hammer dunk and added 17 points and Zach Norvell provided timely outside shooting.
But the No. 1-seeded Zags say the maestro behind it all — at least when they’re on the court — is fifth-year senior point guard Josh Perkins, who doesn’t get nearly the hype as the aforementioned Gonzaga stars but is generally the engineer behind it all.
“Without Perk, we wouldn’t be here,” said sophomore forward Corey Kispert. “He is kind of the glue that holds us all together.”
Having improved to 7-3 in NCAA Tournament games played in Salt Lake City, the Zags (31-3) will meet No. 9 seed Baylor (20-13) at Vivint Smart Home Arena on Saturday (5:10 p.m., TBS) in a second-round game, and Perkins will be there to orchestrate it all.
Nicknamed “Hollywood” by his teammates because he enjoys the bright lights and attention perhaps as much as anyone on the squad, Perkins said Wednesday he’s OK with his role.
He’s all about winning, he said, and getting the Zags back to the national championship game like they did in 2017.
“Gonzaga has a history of great point guards [including former Utah Jazz great John Stockton],” Perkins said. “And I just hope to be included among them when it is all said and done.”
With his trademark unkempt hair and more tattoos than he cares to count — most of which carry inspirational sayings or depict influential people in his life — Perkins doesn’t shy away from the limelight. He writes “Prove Them Wrong” on the tape on his wrist before games.
Like BYU’s quarterbacks are often scrutinized unfairly in Provo, Gonzaga’s point guards are in Spokane, and Perkins has felt the wrath of the faithful at The Kennel a time or two, such as that monumental 77-71 upset by BYU when GU was ranked No. 1 and on a 29-game winning streak.
“He’s handled whatever criticism that has come his way like a pro,” Kispert said.
Perkins said it just gives him “ammo” to get better.
Backup guard Geno Crandall, a fifth-year graduate transfer from North Dakota, said Gonzaga’s offense is “high-powered and complicated” and Perkins is the perfect player to direct it.
“He is full of confidence,” Crandall said. “He’s helped me learn everything. He’s a great leader. He knows how to lead the guys when they are off the court and I have been able to listen to him and have been fortunate to have been able to play with him.”
Kispert said Perkins is “really funny, really animated,” and always has a smile on his face, or a joke to tell, off the court.
“He’s a friend to everybody and his apartment door is always open. We can hang out there whenever we want,” Kispert said. “Josh is a really inviting person, and he made me feel like I was at home the day I stepped on the Gonzaga campus.”
Perkins is from the Park Hill neighborhood of Denver, Colo., so his father, little sister and little brother have made the trip to Salt Lake City, where Gonzaga receives as much support as any non-Utah team that has ever played here.
“We have a lot of ties to Utah, and with BYU being in our same conference, it seems like BYU fans pull for us as well, so it looks good for the WCC and whatnot,” Perkins said. “We definitely want that to be the case. We’re the home team here, in a sense.”
While Hachimura, Clarke and Tillie are likely bound for the NBA this year or next, Perkins’ future is less certain, but he wants to continue playing basketball for a living.
“I am going to dribble the ball as long as it bounces for me, play as long as I can,” he said. “Whatever opportunities present themselves, I will take them. My dream has always been to play in the NBA and pursue that to the best of my abilities, but if not I will definitely try to play somewhere else.”
NO. 9 BAYLOR VS. NO. 1 GONZAGA
At Vivint Smart Home Arena
Tipoff • Saturday, 5:10 p.m.
TV • TBS
Records • Gonzaga 31-3 (16-0 WCC); Baylor 20-13 (10-8 Big 12)
Series history • Gonzaga leads, 4-0
Last meeting • Gonzaga 94, Baylor 87 (Dec. 28, 2012)
About the Bears • Senior guard Makai Mason scored 22 points and they made a season-high 16 3-pointers on 34 attempts in Thursday’s 78-69 win over Syracuse. Mason and Jared Butler made four treys apiece, while Mario Kegler and King McClure had three each. ... A win would move them into the Sweet 16 for the fifth time since 2010. They are 4-0 in second-round NCAA Tournament games. … Coach Scott Drew’s brother, Bryce Drew, was the head coach at Vanderbilt before being relieved of his duties on Thursday after three years at the helm. Scott Drew has been Baylor’s coach since 2003 and has compiled a 338-219 overall record. …
About the Bulldogs • They are 32-21 all-time in tournament games and 7-3 in games in Salt Lake City after defeating Fairleigh Dickinson 87-49 on Thursday in a first-round game. … The 38-point margin was their largest margin of victory in an NCAA Tournament game in school history. “I don’t know who in America could’ve played Gonzaga and beat them tonight,” FDU coach Greg Herenda said. … Forwards Rui Hachimura (20.1 ppg.) and Brandon Clarke (16.5) were both named to the national ballot for the Wooden Award. Hachimura had 21 points vs. FDU, while Clarke chipped in 12. Killian Tillie, who has played in only 12 games due to a foot injury, scored a season-high 17.