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.