College basketball season is creeping up fast, and Athlon Sports is counting down to Midnight Madness and the start of practice on Oct. 17.
No. 18 Gonzaga is gearing up for another run beyond an West Coast Conference title and an NCAA Tournament appearance, which has become the standard in 15 seasons under Mark Few. The Zags have brought in a handful of transfers to combine with the veteran inside-out duo of Kevin Pangos and Przemek Karnowski for a program hoping to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2009.
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In one of those way-too-early preseason polls released shortly after Connecticut won the NCAA championship in April, Gonzaga checked in at No. 9, and according to coach Mark Few, there’s a possibility that this could be his best team.
On paper, it’s hard to argue, and those who know Few know he’s not prone to hyperbole, particularly when his team is involved.
Two years removed from the program’s first No. 1 ranking and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Zags have assembled a team that looks long on promise and short on weaknesses. The Bulldogs have experience, depth, size, shooters, post-up options and versatility.
No. 18 Gonzaga Facts & Figures
Last season: 29-6, 15-3 West Coast
Postseason: NCAA round of 32
Consecutive NCAAs: 16
Coach: Mark Few (403-100 overall, 193-25 WCC)
WCC Projection: First
Postseason Projection: NCAA round of 32
Przemek Karnowski’s development seems to be right on track. The 7-1 center has made noticeable changes to his body, trimming off pounds while adding strength and endurance. He’s expanded his offensive arsenal and excels at putting opposing bigs in foul trouble. He was a force on defense, swatting 62 shots and, for the most part, doing a better job of avoiding foul trouble himself as the season progressed. He had double-doubles in GU’s two NCAA Tournament games.
Sam Dower Jr., Karnowski’s sidekick last season, has moved on to the professional ranks. Enter Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer, a highly skilled 6-10 forward. He spent last season working with trainer Travis Knight, who helped remodel Kelly Olynyk’s body during a redshirt year prior to his breakout season in 2013. Wiltjer, who came off the bench for Kentucky’s 2012 national championship team, has shooting range beyond the 3-point line, and his added muscle should help him operate in the lane.
Domantas Sabonis, another skilled 6-10 forward, could be the first big off the bench. The 18-year-old Sabonis, son of Naismith Memorial Hall of Famer Arvydas Sabonis, has held his own against some of the best players in the world.
It’s a much different scenario than last season, when Gonzaga often turned to 6-7 Drew Barham and 6-5 Kyle Dranginis as Dower’s primary backups.
Angel Nunez is another option. The athletic, 6-8 Nunez was eligible for the final two-thirds of last season and made contributions in several games. With a full season in the program and an offseason to develop, Nunez could see more minutes. Seven-footer Ryan Edwards could redshirt or serve as Karnowski’s backup for the second straight year.
Guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. cracked the starting lineup as freshmen, and they’ve been there ever since, combining for 187 starts. Both are career double-figure scorers (Pangos 13.3 ppg, Bell 10.1 ppg) and excellent 3-point shooters (Pangos 40.9 percent, Bell 42.8 precent), and they also do a good job taking care of the basketball.
The two have dealt with a lot of wear and tear on their bodies. Pangos played with toe and ankle injuries from early December through the remainder of the season but didn’t miss a game. Few has called Pangos the toughest kid he’s ever coached. Bell has had offseason surgeries the last two years.
The wing position isn’t as settled, but there are quality options in Kyle Dranginis, USC transfer Byron Wesley and possibly Vanderbilt transfer Eric McClellan. Dranginis had a solid sophomore season, stepping in as a starter when Bell was sidelined by a broken hand. His versatility was reflected in his stats with averages of 6.1 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.2 steals. Wesley, who is eligible immediately, led USC in scoring (17.8 ppg) and rebounding (6.4 rpg) last season. McClellan, who will be eligible in December, was Vanderbilt’s leading scorer (14.3 ppg) before being dismissed from the team after 12 games.
Gonzaga also has highly regarded incoming freshmen Josh Perkins and Silas Melson.
The Zags are heavy favorites to win their 14th WCC crown in 15 seasons. They have an impressive roster, led by the rock-solid backcourt of Pangos and Bell Jr. and possibly one of the nation’s better frontcourt tandems in Karnowski and Wiltjer. Any of those four players could be considered a WCC Player of the Year candidate, though the team’s balance might overshadow individual honors.
But Gonzaga’s goals extend beyond the WCC. The Zags have played in the NCAAs in 16 straight seasons, and they have the potential to make their stay in this season’s tournament a long one.
Kyle Wiltjer’s knowledge of the game and ability to spread the floor should help his pairing with Przemek Karnowski flourish. Wiltjer’s offseason work in the weight room figures to bring an inside-outside balance to his game. Byron Wesley should have an impact at both ends of the floor, and Eric McClellan could eventually do the same. Josh Perkins and Silas Melson, the backcourt of the future, and the talented Domantas Sabonis figure to have roles in the rotation.