A six-month journey had just come to an end with an Elite Eight loss to Duke and the last thing Gonzaga coach Mark Few wanted to talk about was the next six-month journey.
But he did anyway, and there’s reason to think the 2016 Zags are capable of another special ride.
There are obvious concerns. Gonzaga loses three-fifths of the starting lineup from the most successful team in school history. The Zags lose starting guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr., their shooting prowess, their leadership, their combined 277 games of experience – Pangos 142 games, Bell 135 – and their school-record 122 wins.
They lose wing Byron Wesley, the graduate transfer from USC who was fourth in scoring, fourth in rebounding, second in assists and led the squad in free throws made (106) and attempted (158).
Few called Gonzaga’s 35 wins “a crazy number.” It’s even crazier in the context that the Zags’ two 30-win seasons have come in the last three seasons, with a 29-win campaign in between. That suggests not only staying power but an upward trend at a program that has produced 17 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.
“We have a lot of good players coming back,” Few said. “It would have been nice for Josh (Perkins) to experience all of this because he’s going to be an important part of this thing moving forward. And Silas (Melson) has to be a guy that steps up. Those bigs were as good as anybody in the country, they’ll be even better next year.
“(Redshirt Bryan) Alberts shot the ball unbelievably well in practice. That’ll be a big key, too, can we step up and shoot the ball like these guys because the playmaking and passing will all still be very high.”
Perkins, who played in five games before suffering a season-ending broken jaw against Georgia at the NIT Season Tip-Off in New York, and Melson, who averaged nearly 10 minutes per game, figure to step in for Pangos and Bell.
Rising senior Kyle Dranginis, who played some of his best basketball in the last month of the season, Eric McClellan and the 6-foot-4 Alberts are leading contenders at wing. McClellan can play multiple guard positions. The Zags could experiment with 6-10 Kyle Wiltjer at the “3.”
Gonzaga was an ideal landing spot for Wesley – and vice versa – and it could have similar appeal to a growing list of graduate transfers. Drexel’s Damion Lee, a 6-foot-6 guard who was fifth in the nation in scoring (21.4), is No. 1 on ESPN.com’s top 10 transfers with the comment, “he’ll be as sought-after as anyone on this list.” Lee is scheduled to graduate in June and would be eligible next season.
The 2016 Zags will have a new starting backcourt and wing but their style of play will likely stay the same: inside-out, provided the trio of talented bigs – Przemek Karnowski, Domantas Sabonis and Wiltjer – returns intact. Wiltjer and Sabonis have indicated they’ll be back. ESPN.com rates Karnowski as the 16th-best center.
Seven-footer Ryan Edwards, coming off his redshirt year, has benefited from a season of individual work and practicing against three future pros.
“We have all the big fellas, the backcourt that’s coming in is awesome,” Pangos said. “Silas has shown flashes, Josh has shown flashes. They’re going to be unbelievable. We always say in some ways it’s going to be more enjoyable to watch because they make it a lot flashier. I was really simple with the stuff I do.”
The schedule won’t be simple next season with home dates against Arizona and UCLA and a road contest against SMU. The Zags will face Pittsburgh in Okinawa and a strong field in the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas (Syracuse, Connecticut, Michigan, Texas, Washington, Texas A&M and Charlotte).
“We have a great young group coming in,” Wiltjer said. “And just like this year we’re going to play hard, aggressive and confidently.”
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