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Zags’ success rests on health of Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr.

Gonzaga’s Kevin Pangos, left, and Gary Bell Jr., chat after practice in the McCarthey Athletic Center on Tuesday. Both battled lower-body injuries last season. (Dan Pelle)
Gonzaga’s Kevin Pangos, left, and Gary Bell Jr., chat after practice in the McCarthey Athletic Center on Tuesday. Both battled lower-body injuries last season. (Dan Pelle)

Kevin Pangos has played in 104 career games at Gonzaga but the final 28 of the 2013-14 season were particularly painful.

Gary Bell Jr. has played in 97 career games but he dealt with recurring knee pain for roughly half of last season.

If you’re looking for examples of the toll a college basketball season can take on players, look no further than Gonzaga’s senior guard tandem. Pangos was slowed by turf toe on his right foot in early December and soon thereafter a nagging left ankle sprain. Neither had a chance to heal by the time GU was bounced from the NCAA tournament by Arizona in March.

The Zags weren’t able to pinpoint the source of Bell’s knee discomfort until after the season. As it turned out, a piece of cartilage would often settle in a tender spot under his knee cap.

Four practices into the new season, the pair are thankful to leave the pain behind. It took both months to return to health. Bell needed surgery and took it somewhat easy in preseason workouts.

“We couldn’t put a finger on it in the beginning,” Bell said. “That last game, Arizona, that’s when it flared up the most. Maybe half the season I was dealing with it. I just played through it.”

It’s something of a Zag tradition for players not to say a word about ailments and simply find a way to stay on the court. In Pangos’ case, it was impossible to ignore. He couldn’t operate the same way he did in his first two seasons. One misstep or ill-timed collision with an opponent’s foot and Pangos would be in excruciating pain.

“It was awful,” he said. “So frustrating. I felt like I wasn’t contributing to the team. I knew I could do things but I couldn’t actually do them. I’m just looking forward to a healthy year.”

Pangos took time off and returned home to Canada. His first time playing live basketball was at the first Nike skills camp. About two months ago is “when I was feeling my best,” he said.

He said he wasn’t good company during the summer.

“My personality changed, too,” he said. “I didn’t have much to do. Not that basketball is everything for me but it’s what I love to do. It takes the weight off my shoulders. I think I was pretty grumpy when I was at home.”

Pangos is taking every precaution, utilizing braces and tape. He does endless stretching and strengthening exercises. He tries to wear new shoes because older shoes don’t prove enough support.

“I’m thinking about resting them as much as I can,” coach Mark Few said of Pangos and Bell. “They’re both guys throughout their careers they’re in on every rep in practice. At this point, with some of our new guards, we need to make sure they’re not in every rep in practice.”

Bell had surgery in April. It’s the second straight offseason he’s been limited. He had a stress fracture during the 2012-2013 season.

He’s participated in the first four practices.

“I feel like I’ve been going full bore,” Bell said. “It’s been good.”

Lots of Zags

Gonzaga has 17 players, counting walk-ons.

“It takes some planning with all the drills,” Few said. “It’s probably a luxury we haven’t had in the past.”

The freshmen class of Josh Perkins, Silas Melson, Bryan Alberts and Domas Sabonis are making a favorable impression.

“If it was a year where we didn’t have starting senior guards or a guy as experienced as ‘Shem’ (Przemek Karnowski) or Kyle (Wiltjer), all of them would be in position to probably start and play a lot of minutes, that’s how comfortable we are with them,” Few said.

“Because we have some senior guards and experience up front they’re probable not going to get as many minutes.”

Preseason hype

Gonzaga has received quite a bit of attention nationally. The Zags are in the top 15 of nearly every preseason poll.

Few said high expectations accompany every season. The 16-year head coach likes the look of his roster.

“We’re really deep,” he said, “to the point that we’re two deep at every spot.”

Four starting spots would seem to be secure with Pangos, Bell, Karnowski and Wiltjer, who sat out last season after transferring from Kentucky. The talented Sabonis will challenge for front-court minutes. USC transfer Byron Wesley, junior Kyle Dranginis and eventually Vanderbilt transfer Eric McClellan, who becomes eligible in December, are candidates at the ‘3.’

“I wouldn’t pencil in all of those guys just yet,” Few said. “There’s pretty good competition at all those spots.”

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