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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.

March Madness: How Gonzaga Matches up with Duke

Gonzaga and Duke will meet in the South Regional final for a chance to go to the Final Four. In some ways, the matchup represents two very different, yet similar teams. Duke is former champion steeped in tradition seeking yet another Final Four berth while Gonzaga searches for an elusive appearance on college basketball’s biggest stage to cement itself among the best.

Both teams like to get up and down and score, so expect an entertaining game. Many will pick Duke thanks to the Blue Devil’s slightly higher seed and the fact that they don’t really respect Gonzaga. Most basketball fans won’t admit to disrespecting the Zags, but there is a level of disbelief that continues to follow Gonzaga.

Even after the program reached the Elite Eight. Yes, that’s right, the Elite Eight, pundits are still doubting the Zags. Sure, GU didn’t exactly knockout #1 seeds in the tournament, but that doesn’t mean they should be knocked for reaching this point for the first time since 1999. It’s almost like taking the easy way out and forming an opinion without watching Gonzaga enough to realize that yes, they are in fact really good and can beat anyone. They even have the size to challenge and compete with Kentucky.

After the Zags’ Przemek Karnowski-led frontline destroyed their UCLA counterparts, the Zags will face Duke in Houston on Sunday. Some will tell you otherwise, but GU actually matches up well with the Blue Devils.

The South’s top-seeded team feature three extremely talented freshman in Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justice Winslow. Outside of the trio and Quinn Cook, Coach K has exactly zero players averaging double-figures. Duke has depth issues, but the team is generally able to overcome them thanks to their stars, especially Okafor. The Blue Devils have Marshall Plumlee and Amile Jefferson, but other than that there is a definite dearth of size. Additionally, neither are even close to being in the same discussion as Okafor offensively. Winslow was slid to the four next to Okafor at center to help combat this. While Winslow will likely be tasked with slowing down Kyle Wiltjer, Okafor will have issues with Karnowski and Domantas Sabonis on both ends of the floor.

The beauty of Gonzaga’s frontline is that they not only features a rotation of bigs, but that those bigs can beat you in different ways. Wiltjer is the stretch four who can score from any spot on the floor while Sabonis is the rare freshman with an extremely polished offensive, low-post game. He also brings energy, size and rebounding to the team when he enters the game. Karnowski is a different matchup entirely. The 7’1” center is the definition of an immovable object in the lane with soft hands and potent array of hook shots.

With all three at his disposal, Mark Few relies on a rotation, which was on full display against UCLA as the Zags’ coach constantly subbed the post players in and out in order to keep them fresh. With Duke expected to heavily rely on Okafor, tiring him out will be key. This won’t be hard with the rotation and number of screens the Zags tend to set.

Gonzaga’s opponents also have a tendency to pile up fouls quickly, often leaving the Zags in the bonus for long stretches of the game. Most of this has to do with post players trying to grapple with the “mountain masquerading as a man” known as Przemek Karnowski. Karnowski’s size also provides him the opportunity to shut down Okafor on the defensive end. Simply put, Karnowski is a big dude and despite his offensive gifts, Okafor will have trouble scoring on him.

Getting Okafor gassed and/or in foul trouble will give the Zags a leg up in the game. It will also expose the Blue Devils lack of depth. In Duke’s last two tournament games they have played one exactly one player more than 10 minutes, and that was Jefferson who averages 6.6 points per game.

Outside of the starting five for GU, Sabonis essentially plays “starter minutes” off the bench while Kyle Dranginis’ minute totals approach “starter” territory. If it turns into a game of depth, the Zags will have the upper hand.

There will be offensive fireworks with both teams likely to have adjusted to the cavernous backdrop of the stadium in Houston. Expect an entertaining match as both the Zags and Blue Devils seek a Final Four berth.

For more Gonzaga coverage, including how the 2011 recruiting class is paying dividends, click here. 

Gonzaga Bulldogs: 2011 Recruiting Class Paying Massive Dividends for Mark Few & Zags

The Gonzaga Bulldogs have never quite been able to recruit the same level of talent out of high school as the likes of Kentucky, Duke and Kansas, however GU has firmly cemented its place alongside those three schools in the College Basketball hierarchy by recruiting players who not only fit their system and culture, but players that they can develop.

The Zags also tend to find gems on the international market with future NBA players Ronny Turiaf, Kelly Olynyk and Robert Sacre all coming from outside the states. The Zags have two future NBA players on their roster in European big men Przemek Karnowski and Domantas Sabonis.

Despite the lack of McDonalds All-Americans, Mark Few has put together impressive recruiting classes in the past. 2007 brought Sacre and another future NBA player in Austin Daye as well as fellow top-100 recruit Steven Gray who flourished as one of the team’s best players.

While the 2011 class didn’t bring the size that 2007’s brought, the group of players to arrive in Spokane in 2011 has helped propel GU to its first Sweet 16 since 2009. This year’s incarnation of Gonzaga may be Mark Few’s best, and could reach the school’s first Final Four. While a lot of this has to do with the Zags’ daunting frontline, featuring a three-headed monster of Karnowski, Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer, a lot of it has to do with the backcourt.

Starting guards, and products of the 2011 recruiting class, Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. have sacrificed a lot in order to make the team better. Both have seen their per-game scoring numbers drop by nearly three points each. Bell Jr. is often tasked with checking the opposition’s best permitted defender while Pangos rarely gets a breather, playing 35 or minutes on 22 occasions this season.

Despite their sacrifices, Pangos and Bell Jr. form one of the best backcourts in the country.

Pangos is an unflappable floor-general who is lethal from three-point land (44.9% this season) and can beat you off the dribble with a potent array of layups and floaters. If Gonzaga weren’t incredibly blessed with a wealth of scoring options, it would surprise no one to see Pangos’ per-game scoring approach 20 points. Oh yeah, he’d probably start on just about every team in the country… including Kentucky.

His backcourt mate Bell Jr. is one of the best defenders in the country. Despite a 6’2” frame that puts him at a height disadvantage, Bell Jr. can lock down almost anyone on the perimeter. Just ask BYU’s Tyler Haws, who despite having a height advantage of three inches and being one of the best scores in the country, struggled mightily against the Zags due to the presence of Bell Jr. Haws’ bread and butter is the contested mid-range jumper, but he managed shooting nights of 6-14, 3-11 and 4-12 against Gonzaga. And oh yeah, Bell Jr. can knock down the three as well. He shot 47.7% as a freshman and still manages a similarly deadly 37.7 clip this season. Similar to Pangos, if GU had fewer weapons or if Bell Jr. were at a bigger school with less firepower, he’d likely be a 15 point-per-game scorer.

In addition to Pangos and Bell Jr., Few also brought in Idaho native Kyle Dranginis as well.  Dranginis operates as the team’s hustle monger off the bench, always challenging for offensive rebounds, loose balls and blocked shots despite being shorter than a good portion of the opposition. He only averages 4.1 points a contest, but if it weren’t for the presence of USC-transfer Wesley, Dranginis would be starting and easily averaging double-figures in points per game. Despite only scoring three points in the team’s round-of-32 win over Iowa, he had a steal, a block, two rebounds and four assists. He fills the stat sheet for the Zags. In win at Sweet Sixteen opponent UCLA in December, Dranginis totaled five points, six rebounds and five assists. He also had a steal and a made three pointer.

Due to freshman Josh Perkins’ broken jaw and Eric McClellan’s acclimation process, Few has largely depended on a backcourt rotation of Pangos, Bell Jr. and Dranginis down the stretch.

In addition to those three, GU’s 2011 recruiting class is also paying dividends elsewhere. Forward Ryan Spangler transferred to Oklahoma to be closer to home and has helped the Sooners to the Sweet Sixteen with 9.9 points per game and 8.2 rebounds per contest. He posted seven double-doubles this season and reached double-figures in rebounding in 12 contests.

The remaining members of the 2011 class have propelled the Zags to a point where they can reach the program’s first final four. They’ve definitely earned it.

Watch: Mark Few Does a Handstand While Celebrating Gonzaga’s Sweet 16 Birth

This from Gonzaga forward Kyle Wiltjer-