Kyle Wiltjer could lead another offensive powerhouse for Zags
Gonzaga this season could look very much like the 2015 and ’13 versions of the Bulldogs. Those two squads went a combined 67–6 and are considered at or near the top of the list of all-time GU teams, meaning that this year’s Zags remain clear favorites in the WCC and a fixture on the national landscape.
The similarities to last year’s 35–3 squad, which reached the Elite Eight for the second time in program history, are obvious. The Zags relied on one of the nation’s best frontcourts in center Przemek Karnowski and forwards Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer. Those three return to anchor the current squad.
The Kelly Olynyk-led 2013 team, which finished 32–3 after being upset by Wichita State in the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 32, enjoyed a relatively injury-free year, other than Gary Bell Jr.’s late-season foot/ankle issues. The Zags could use another healthy campaign with just nine scholarship players on their roster.
Gonzaga may be short on depth but not on talent.
All West Coast Conference predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, available online and on newsstands everywhere.
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The trio of Karnowski, Sabonis and Wiltjer combined to shoot 59.4 percent from the field last season. They averaged 37.4 points and 19.0 rebounds per game. Those numbers should improve following an offseason of skill development and conditioning. Karnowski and Wiltjer considered leaving early for the NBA Draft before electing to return for their senior seasons. Sabonis, projected by some as a first-round pick, decided early to come back for his sophomore season.
The three bring different specialties, adding to their collective effectiveness. Wiltjer, who dropped 45 points on Pacific, can score from the rim out to 25 feet. He continues to make strides physically, which has helped his post-up game. His ability to stretch the floor makes it tough for foes to double Karnowski or Sabonis.
Karnowski is a low-post force who burned paint-conscious opponents with his passing ability. He’s a quality rim protector on defense. Sabonis is a relentless rebounder and an emotional spark, often shouting to punctuate dunks in traffic. He is working to expand his offensive game with a mid-range jumper and the ability to create via the dribble.
The three will probably see some court time together, depending on the matchups at both ends of the floor.
Ryan Edwards, who has the size (7'1") to compete with Karnowski in practice, figures to play in the 8-12 minute range.
No. 11 Gonzaga Bulldogs Facts & Figures
Last season: 35–3, 17–1 WCC
Postseason: Elite Eight
Consecutive NCAAs: 17
West Coast Projection: 1
Postseason Projection: Sweet 16
The biggest questions concern the backcourt. The exit of rock-solid four-year starters Bell Jr., Kevin Pangos and Byron Wesley (first three years with USC) leaves three starting jobs open. Pangos and Bell were deadeye shooters and remarkably consistent. Wesley was a perfect fit slashing from the wing.
Five players are essentially competing for the three spots, but all will be counted on to contribute. Point guard Josh Perkins was off to a promising start before suffering a season-ending broken jaw against Georgia in the fifth game. He’s a gifted passer and appears to have the tools to be a capable scorer.
Silas Melson, pressed into duty after Perkins’ injury, could step into Bell’s role. With opponents concentrating on GU’s interior, the athletic Melson and the other guards should have spot-up shooting opportunities.
The 3, manned by Wesley last year, is up for grabs, though senior Kyle Dranginis has seen extended time at the position. Bryan Alberts, who redshirted last season, is another option.
Eric McClellan, a quality defender, can play any of the guard positions. Mark Few has never been shy about using three-guard lineups in the past, and that could be a possibility at times this season.
Key Losses: G Kevin Pangos, G Gary Bell Jr., G Byron Wesley
Top Players: G Josh Perkins, G Kyle Dranginis, F Kyle Wiltjer, F Domantas Sabonis, C Przemek Karnowski
Wing Bryan Alberts should crack the rotation after redshirting last season. He has the size and shooting ability to help at the 3. Under NCAA rules, transfers Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington) and Johnathan Williams (Missouri) can practice with the team but must sit out this season.
For the last four years, Few rarely had to worry about his starting backcourt. Pangos, the 2015 WCC Player of the Year, and Bell, the WCC Defensive Player of the Year, were unselfish, knock-down shooters who made few mental mistakes. Gonzaga’s new backcourt will probably be bigger and more athletic, no matter what combination Few puts on the floor; but they have huge shoes to fill.
Gonzaga’s talented frontline will draw most of the attention, which should allow for an easier transition for the guards. If they show that they can share the ball, hit open shots and defend, and primary players stay healthy, the Zags have the makings of another 30-win team capable of an extended run in the NCAA Tournament.