Gonzaga Bulldogs: End of a Historic Season and Era, Looking Forward

Coming off the heels of the Gonzaga women losing a heart-breaker, the Gonzaga men experienced a whole different kind of pain in their loss to Duke. While the score line didn’t reflect the tightest of games, GU hung with and at times outplayed the Blue Devils. It was even for much of the game with Duke pulling away late.

The loss not only brings an end to a historic season, but to an era.

Gonzaga coach Mark Few on a positive of a record-setting 35-3 season: “We basically made it to a Final Five, the way this thing lined up.”

— Brent Zwerneman (@BrentZwerneman) March 30, 2015

Mark Few and the Zags will lose three senior starters in Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr. and Byron Wesley. Pangos and Bell Jr. were four year starters at the school and it will seem odd next year to see a Gonzaga game without the floppy haired point guard and his backcourt mate Bell Jr., a lockdown defender and three-point marksman.

The duo started many games ahead of NBA guard David Stockton while also playing with a frontline that sent three players (Elias Harris, Robert Sacre and Kelly Olynyk) to the NBA. This year’s three-headed monster of a frontcourt (Kyle Wiltjer, Przemek Karnowski and Domantas Sabonis) will all likely play in the association once they leave Spokane. It safe to say that the duo have played with numerous talented players, but they’ve also continued the tradition of great guard play at Gonzaga.

Few: “We were just so blessed to go to practice with these dudes, to travel, to do film sessions and obviously to march out on the floor.” — Jim Meehan (@SRJimm) March 30, 2015

The duo’s exceedingly high level of play and leadership will be missed, but the Zags have planned for this inevitability.
Josh Perkins is an extremely gifted passer and will only be a redshirt freshman next season after suffering a broken jaw early in the year. He’s only played a handful of games in a Gonzaga shirt, but he seems poised to continue carrying the torch at GU, or “Guard University” as one of the next great Zag guards.

Do-it-all guard Kyle Dranginis has earned a starting spot after years playing behind Bell Jr. and Pangos, so expect him to start along with Perkins. From there the team has options. Wiltjer could be shoehorned into the small forward spot so Sabonis can start, but Few may prefer the same rotation he used this past season. So it’s likely that Sabonis stays on the bench to start games even though he has received “starter minutes”.

Wiltjer: “I got another year of eligibility so that’s my plan right now (to return).”

— Jim Meehan (@SRJimm) March 30, 2015

With Sabonis on the bench and Dranginis and Perkins in the lineup along with Wiltjer and Karnowski, the team will have options for the fifth starter spot vacated by Byron Wesley. An addition could come via a transfer or the international market, but right now the likely frontrunners are Eric McClellan and Silas Melson.

McClellan previously averaged 14.3 points per game at Vanderbilt, but wasn’t able to log consistent playing time this year thanks to Bell Jr., Pangos and Dranginis. He could thrive in extended minutes in a three-guard lineup with Perkins and Dranginis in a somewhat similar fashion to what GU used to run with Bell Jr., Pangos and Stockton.

Melson was initially going to redshirt thanks to the presence of Perkins, but once his fellow freshman went down with the broken jaw, Melson stepped in and provided quality minutes when called upon. He reached double-digit point totals in wins over Texas Southern, San Francisco, Pepperdine and Pacific. Like McClellan, he could thrive in extended minutes. Regardless of if Melson starts next season, he will likely play a much larger role than he played this season. At the very least, he’ll be one of the Zags go-to players off the bench.

Outside of the losses of their starting seniors, Gonzaga will bring most everyone back. Additionally, center Ryan Edwards and guard Bryan Alberts will be eligible after completing their redshirt seasons. If we’ve learned anything from Gonzaga redshirting players (see Wiltjer and Olynyk) it is that the coaching staff in Spokane knows how to get the most out of their players. Expect the two newly eligible players to contribute.

A starting five of Perkins, Dranginis, McClellan/Melson, Wiltjer and Karnowski is likely good enough to be considered favorites in a WCC where runner-up BYU will lose three of their top five scorers to graduation, including their best player in Tyler Haws. Third-place finisher Saint Mary’s will lose five of their top six scorers and minute-loggers to graduation. Like BYU, Saint Mary’s loses their best player and leading scorer in Brad Waldow.

Thanks to a front-line that will be amongst the nation’s best and a promising point guard, Gonzaga is a good bet to start next season as a top-15 team, with the potential to move up higher depending on what teams above them lose players to early entry in the NBA draft.

The Zags will once again be back in the NCAA tournament in 2016 with their sights set on making that elusive Final Four appearance that eluded this year’s team.

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