USA Today, ESPN.com, Dickie V. and any number of online prognosticators and preseason magazines seem to agree: The Gonzaga Bulldogs are about to embark on a special men’s basketball season.
They’ve been lauded as a Top 10 pick by many and a Final Four contender by some. They’ve been picked to win the West Coast Conference in the preseason poll.
The attention is flattering, but it should really come with a warning label, GU associate head coach Leon Rice figures.
“I think it’s poisonous if you believe it,” he said. “That’s what it comes down to. It’s something you can’t control. We don’t pay that much attention to it, but if you start believing it, it’ll kill your team.
“It’s about becoming as good as we can and controlling all the things we can control. I would hope these guys are mature enough to understand that those things don’t mean anything.”
Gonzaga officially opens the 2008-09 season tonight at 6:30 at the McCarthey Athletic Center with a scrimmage, dunking exhibition and 3-point shooting contest, some of which will be televised on ESPNU as part of the network’s Midnight Madness coverage at five schools across the country. Doors open at 5:30 and the event is free to the public.
Introductions, for the most part, won’t be necessary. The Zags, who went 25-8 last season and won their eighth straight WCC title before bowing to Davidson in the first round of the NCAA tournament, return six of their top seven scorers. Topping that list is Jeremy Pargo, the 2008 WCC player of the year, leading returning scorer Matt Bouldin (12.6 points), Austin Daye (10.5 ppg) and Josh Heytvelt (10.3 ppg).
There are injury concerns with Daye, Heytvelt and sophomore center Robert Sacre. Daye is recovering from a knee injury that was at first mistakenly diagnosed as a torn ACL. Heytvelt had off-season surgery on his foot/ankle and spent more than four months in a cast or walking boot. Sacre had surgery on his foot recently and could miss eight weeks.
Heytvelt probably will participate in the scrimmage tonight while Daye is expected to watch. GU is being extremely cautious with both players, Rice said.
“Austin is just starting to get back to his full level and he’s a long way from game shape,” Rice said. “Josh isn’t back to his full athleticism and form yet, but he’s so talented that he can jump right back in and still look like a basketball player.”
Freshmen Demetri Goodson, Grant Gibbs and Andy Poling will make their Gonzaga debuts.
The Eagles, who open practice tonight, were short-handed most of last season and often needed an assistant coach to step in during drills, but that’s not the case as head coach Kirk Earlywine enters his second year.
“It took a little longer to type up the roster this year,” cracked Earlywine, who has 15 players to work with as he tries to improve on EWU’s 11-19 record, 6-10 in the Big Sky.
Returners Adris DeLeon (12.1 points), Trey Gross (7.3), Gary Gibson (5.7) and Milan Stanojevic (7.9) anchor the guard line. Earlywine expects 6-foot-9 Brandon Moore, who averaged 11.3 points and 7.6 rebounds over the last eight games, to take on a bigger role.
Key newcomers include 5-7 guard Benny Valentine, who sat out last season after transferring from Texas Tech, junior college transfers Mark Dunn (6-8) and Chris Busch (6-6), and true freshman point guard Kevin Winford, the 2008 prep player of the year in Alaska last season.
EWU loses Marcus Hinton and All-Big Sky forward Kellen Williams.
New head coach Don Verlin takes over a program that hasn’t had a winning season since 1998-99. Verlin’s first team will rely heavily on four returning players, ex-Washington State Cougar Mac Hopson and an influx of JC transfers.
Trevor Morris (7.4 points) and Brandon Brown (5.1) lead the returners. Hopson, who sat out last year under NCAA transfer rules, adds scoring ability.
Center Marvin Jefferson averaged 18.8 points and 10.6 rebounds last season at Modesto JC. Guard Kashif Watson averaged 13.3 points for Irvine Valley CC. and forward Brandon Wiley brings averages of 12.9 points and 8.3 rebounds from City College of San Francisco.
The public is invited to the Black and Gold Blowout on Nov. 1 for a scrimmage and other festivities prior to the UI-San Jose State football game.
The Cougars begin pursuit of their third consecutive NCAA tournament berth with a practice tonight at 5 that is closed to the public.
“A lot of times people don’t realize the work we put in year-around and leading up to it,” coach Tony Bennett said. “It’s not like it’s going to be our first time in the gym in forever, but there is an air of excitement to it, just being the first official practice.”
Cornerstones will be seniors Taylor Rochestie (10.4 points, 4.7 assists), Aron Baynes (10.4 ppg, 60 percent FG), Daven Harmeling (5.6 ppg) and Caleb Forrest (3.4 ppg), and junior Nik Koprivica (2.5 ppg).
Seven true freshmen, including highly touted forwards Klay Thompson and DeAngelo Casto (Ferris High) and guard Marcus Capers, along with redshirt freshman guard Abe Lodwick, will bid for time. WSU is replacing Robbie Cowgill, Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver, a trio that accounted for 33.6 of the team’s 66.4 points per game last season.