The view remains pretty good in both directions.
The Gonzaga men’s basketball program’s dominance of the West Coast Conference ended this season, but the Bulldogs can still look backward and forward with warranted optimism.
The positives: Gonzaga won 26 games, navigated another arduous nonconference slate and won at least one NCAA tournament game for the fourth consecutive season. The freshman backcourt duo of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. was remarkably efficient, and junior forward Elias Harris put together a strong bounce-back season. GU was fairly stout on defense and rebounded well most of the season.
The negatives: Saint Mary’s clipped Gonzaga’s WCC regular-season title streak at 11 and the Gaels tacked on the WCC tournament title with a victory over the Bulldogs. Gonzaga battled occasional offensive droughts, turnover-prone stretches and was somewhat unsettled at small forward.
The future? Robert Sacre and guard Marquise Carter graduate. Sacre was the WCC defensive player of the year, the team’s emotional leader and one of four Zags to average in double figures. Carter made big contributions to Gonzaga’s title run in the final month of the 2011 season, but his minutes dwindled this season with the emergence of the freshmen guards.
Harris has said he’ll take some time before deciding if he’ll return for his senior season or attempt to go pro. One online mock draft shows Harris going late in the second round while he’s undrafted in another. He’s not listed in the top 100 prospects by draftexpress.com, where Sacre occupies the 100th spot.
“He deserves to fully go through this process,” GU assistant coach Tommy Lloyd said. “It’s the same thing we’ve done with all of our guys, Rob last year and (Jeremy) Pargo a few years ago.”
If everyone eligible returns, Gonzaga would bring back five of its top six scorers and roughly 58 of its 73 points-per-game average. The Bulldogs redshirted three players, junior-to-be Kelly Olynyk and freshmen guards Kyle Dranginis and Chris Sarbaugh. Olynyk figures to be prominent in Gonzaga’s frontcourt with Harris, Sam Dower and Ryan Spangler.
“I think there were days in January and February where Kelly was our best player on the floor in practice,” assistant coach Ray Giacoletti said. “He really got the most out of his redshirt year. Kyle can do a lot of good things. He has a good feel for games, he can pass it, shoot it from deep range. He could probably become a more consistent shooter. We had a pretty good practice squad with those two guys.”
Pangos led Gonzaga in scoring, and Bell, an accomplished defender, was fourth. The pair contributed nearly 25 points per game.
“We honestly thought they’d be able to do that eventually, but (couldn’t have seen) just how smooth the process was,” Lloyd said. “After they got their feet wet – Kevin came in with a splash, Gary was a little more easing his way in – as the season went along I don’t think they had any doubts in their minds.”
The pair goes from being a question mark at the start of last season to cornerstones of Gonzaga’s future. GU will still have a youthful roster next season with Harris, if he returns, Mike Hart and Guy Landry Edi as the lone seniors.
Gonzaga’s two biggest objectives in recruiting appear to be a post and a wing. Edi, who eventually took over as the starter at small forward after returning from an NCAA-mandated eight-game suspension, had several big games but battled inconsistency. Hart’s strengths are on the offensive boards and the defensive end. The 6-foot-5 Dranginis figures to be in the mix.
“You feel really good about the pieces we have coming back,” Lloyd said. “Not only are they proven, but they have the ability to get better. They grade out good in every category – basketball IQ, upside, character, motivation.”