Gonzaga seniors were coming to grips with the end of their basketball careers in the locker room at Viejas Arena in San Diego following an NCAA tournament loss to Arizona.
Drew Barham went from answering retrospective questions to an inquiry about the Bulldogs’ future.
“They’re going to be good,” Barham said. “They have a lot of guys coming back and a lot of pieces coming in.”
Nine returning players – if nobody opts to leave the program – would form the foundation of the 2015 Zags. Leading the returners are three-year starting guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. and center Przemek Karnowski, who made big strides in his sophomore season.
Pangos led Gonzaga in scoring, edging past senior Sam Dower Jr. in the season finale. Pangos played most of the season with toe and ankle injuries. He had to be helped off the court after spraining his ankle against Arizona but still scored 12 points in 31 minutes.
“He’s the toughest kid I’ve ever coached,” coach Mark Few said after the game.
Bell, who missed six games with a broken hand, put together another effective season. He had four straight double-figure scoring games before struggling against Arizona. He made 43 percent of his 3-pointers and was third on the team at 11 points per game.
Karnowski was perhaps Gonzaga’s most improved player. He averaged 10.4 points and 7.1 rebounds, and his 62 blocks ranked fourth on the single-season list. Wing Kyle Dranginis pushed Karnowski for most improved, more than doubling his 2013 playing time with an all-around game.
Transfers Angel Nunez (Louisville) and Gerard Coleman (Providence) had numerous highlight-reel plays but never found consistent spots in the rotation. Nunez, who became eligible in late December, had two double-figure games and averaged 7.2 minutes.
Coleman played double-digit minutes in just two of the last 10 games. He is expected to weigh his options – returning to what figures to be a crowded GU backcourt or seeking more playing time elsewhere.
As expected, freshmen Ryan Edwards and Luke Meikle saw limited minutes. Edwards made 14 of 17 free throws and performed well in late-season stints against Saint Mary’s and twice versus BYU. Meikle had his best effort of the season against Arkansas in Maui but played in only four games after Jan. 2.
Forward Kyle Wiltjer, who redshirted after transferring from Kentucky, will be prominent in GU’s plans. The versatile 6-foot-10 junior-to-be figures to step into the “4” spot and could be a matchup nightmare for opponents with his shooting range to the 3-point line.
Wiltjer’s last game action was with Kentucky in the 2013 NIT. He will have roughly 18 months to work on his game and his strength and conditioning leading up to GU’s first official practice next season.
Gonzaga has three incoming guards. Pass-first point guard Josh Perkins, who played his senior season at Huntington (W.V.) Prep, is ranked 56th on ESPN.com’s Top 100 in the 2014 class. He averaged 8 points, 5.1 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 3 steals for a team that was ranked fifth in the USA Today poll. He made 41 percent of his 3-pointers and 81 percent of his free throws.
Silas Melson, rated as a three-star recruit by ESPN.com, had a huge senior season. He finished with 24 points – his season average – and seven rebounds to guide short-handed Jefferson past Churchill for the Oregon 5A championship. Six players were suspended on the morning of the title game, leaving Jefferson with just six players.
Melson, who had 52 points in one game, was named the 5A player of the year.
Bryan Alberts, a 6-4 guard at Village Christian in Southern California, was sidelined for most of the season with a knee injury. He played in 12 games, averaging 10.8 points, 6.1 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 3.2 steals.
There are growing indications Domantas Sabonis, son of former Portland Trail Blazers center Arvydas Sabonis, will join GU’s 2014 class.
The 6-10 Lithuanian is playing for a Spanish team but didn’t sign a contract to preserve the option of playing collegiately in the U.S.
Sabonis averaged 14 points and 11.4 rebounds for Lithuania at the 2013 FIBA U-18 European Tournament.
The Bulldogs lose three seniors from a 29-7 team: Dower, an All-WCC first-teamer who had his best season as a Zag, point guard David Stockton and sharp-shooting Barham.
Dower carried the offensive load for a good portion of the conference season. He finished with 1,264 career points, 22nd on GU’s all-time list. Stockton, in his first season as a starter, led the team with 152 assists and 55 steals. He ranks sixth in career assists (417) and fourth in steals (166).
Barham’s 48-percent accuracy on 3-pointers this season would have ranked third nationally if he had reached qualifying minimums.
“I’m blown away by what they were able to do,” Few said. “We had some makeshift lineups (due to injuries) for long stretches. It’s remarkable.”