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Big shoes for future GU teams

After their 98-77 season-ending loss to North Carolina, the Gonzaga players salute their fans. (Christopher Anderson / The Spokesman-Review)
After their 98-77 season-ending loss to North Carolina, the Gonzaga players salute their fans. (Christopher Anderson / The Spokesman-Review)

Successful season will be tough act to follow

Gonzaga players were still processing a 21-point loss to North Carolina last Friday in the locker room at the FedExForum when senior wing Micah Downs was asked for a big-picture view of the Zags’ 2008-09 season.

“I think everybody feels good about the season,” Downs said. “We made it to the Sweet 16, that’s a pretty good accomplishment. Sixteen out of 64 teams, that’s pretty dang good. We’re proud of our season. We hit some adversity in the middle, we lost a few games, but we came out and battled through conference (undefeated). There have only been a couple other (GU) teams that have done that.”

Senior guard Jeremy Pargo spoke softly but offered some advice for next year’s team.

“These guys in here have to prepare and they got a glimpse at what they don’t want to see happen next year,” Pargo said.

By nearly every measure, the 2008-09 Bulldogs put together one of the most successful seasons in school history. They won 28 games, one shy of the school record set in 2002 and equaled in 2006. They won their ninth straight West Coast Conference title, going unbeaten for just the third time in school history. They won the WCC tournament for the ninth time in the last 11 years. They won the Old Spice Classic, their first three-game tournament title since taking the Top of the World Classic in 1997.

Gonzaga advanced to its 11 consecutive NCAA tournament and made the Sweet Sixteen for the fifth time during that span. Top-seeded North Carolina ended GU’s season with a 98-77 win in the South Regional semifinals last Friday.

“In lieu of the schedule we played and the enormous expectations put on this group, I would say it has to rank right up there with the best year or very close to the best year,” head coach Mark Few said. “We won a lot with our defense. If you look at the numbers it’s kind of hard to refute that, but yet we were very skilled and balanced and that won us a lot of games, too.”

Five seniors exit, leaving big shoes to fill. Josh Heytvelt led the team in scoring. Pargo was tops in assists and second in steals. Downs closed the season playing perhaps the best basketball of his career. Ira Brown was often the first forward off the bench after Robert Sacre’s season ended with a broken foot in December. Andrew Sorenson went from walk-on to a fan favorite.

“We lost some great Zags and obviously some great players, but that’s happened around here before,” Few said. “Now we have to develop the ones we have and they need to take on new roles.”

Gonzaga figures to return a talented and fairly seasoned core group. Matt Bouldin had a huge junior season (13.6 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 3.4 apg, 52 steals). Austin Daye, often battling foul trouble, still led GU in rebounding and his scoring average climbed 2.2 points from his freshman season. Steven Gray, despite a streaky perimeter shot, had big games against Tennessee and Connecticut and was fourth in minutes played.

Sacre, a rugged 7-footer, has considerable upside, particularly if he adds more polish to his low-post moves. Demetri Goodson is poised to step in as the starter at point guard.

Daye has said he wants to huddle with his family to discuss a possible jump to the NBA, but the sophomore forward slipped off many mock draft boards this season.

After those five, the only other returning scholarship player with game experience is reserve center Will Foster, who averaged 6.8 minutes in 24 appearances. Guard Grant Gibbs and forward Andy Poling will be coming off redshirt seasons. Poling has bulked up to 240 pounds.

“Rob is going to be able to contribute in a lot of ways, defensively, rebounding and as a back-to-the-basket player,” said Few, adding that Gibbs and Poling “are expected to contribute and then we have the group coming in.”

That group includes 6-8 forward Sam Dower, whose Osseo (Minn.) High team placed second in the state tournament; 6-10 forward Kelly Olynyk, a versatile Canadian capable of playing several positions; athletic 6-5 wing Manny Arop, a Canadian by way of Sudan; and Elias Harris, a physical 6-6 forward from Speyer, Germany. There’s also an intriguing prospect in 6-7 forward Bol Kong, a Sudan native who has lived two-thirds of his life in Canada. He’s trying to resolve visa issues.

Arop and Olynyk will be teammates on the Canadian junior national team that will play in the world championships this summer. The left-handed Dower, by all accounts, had an outstanding senior season.

“Hopefully some of them will help out,” Few said, “but it’ll be easier to make that call in October.”