Mid-Major Top 20 Preview: Gonzaga Bulldogs

Charles Leclaire-US PRESSWIRE

Leave it to me to be the contrarian when it comes to Gonzaga. There is talent, depth and a lot of potential on the roster. But can it all fit together and make that dominant team that everyone is expecting? And is the gap between the Zags and St. Mary's or BYU really that big? It might not be.

I keep trying to figure out the disappointment that surrounds the performance of Elias Harris. I look at his numbers from his freshman year (very good); I look at the numbers from his sophomore year (even better); and then I look at last year, his best yet.

But there is still a belief that the senior forward hasn't lived up to expectations during his three years in Spokane.

Who is setting these expectations?

By our accounting, Harris was the most valuable player on the Bulldogs last season, turning in a 6.1 HW30. He was also the most valuable player on the defensive end, with a 20-plus DEF100 number.

That wasn't good enough for some people.

Some wanted to give credit to last year's success to Robert Sacre. And the graduated center was important during Gonzaga's NCAA Tournament win over West Virginia.

But game after game, particularly at the end of the season, it was Harris that stood out. This was the player that made everything happen.

He was surrounded by great help, but to believe that Harris was anything other than the star player people were expecting since his strong freshman season is incorrect.

Harris has arrived, and should continue to improve into this season, putting him as one of the favorites for player of the year in the West Coast Conference.

He will have to unseat St. Mary's Matthew Dellavedova, and overcome this silly narrative that he has been attached to, but it is possible that Harris could turn into an 8.0 or 9.0 win player this season. And that would come with no additional minutes, just getting stronger on the floor.

Given all that, it sounds as if Harris is all that Gonzaga brings to the table. But he is just the best player among all the talent on the roster.

Now if projections are anything, he might not be at the end of the season. He will have to hold off his starting point guard Kevin Pangos to earn that title. And by the end of the season, he could be fighting Polish newcomer Przemek Karnowski.

Those two, plus Sam Dower and Gary Bell, are the main reasons why you can understand the high expectations for the Bulldogs this year.

Of course, we have spent the better part of the last 24 hours explaining why Gonzaga might finish third in the conference, an opinion that has to be less than popular out there.

But bear this in mind. Bell was a highly touted freshman, but he was just a freshman last year, and put up a pretty average performance for one according to HOOPWAR. Dower's effectiveness, while still good (1.0 HW30), actually decreased from his freshman year.

And Karnowski wasn't even in this country last year.

Now if all the projections and high expectations for these players come to fruition, I will look silly. But how many times have we expected big things from Gonzaga, only to get kind of the status quo out of them.

This year with everything so over the top, including two projections that had them in the Final Four, how can there not be disappointment if things are less than the best in Spokane?

I think Kevin Pangos could be great, as in top point guards ever great. He could double his value, already among the best in the country for a freshman (3.0 HW30), and become one of the best player in the country no matter the class.

The combination of Harris and Pangos together at their peaks could be enough to make all of my pessimistic ramblings seem silly. I won't deny that. It could happen very easily.

But molding all of that together on the court is where I can't be certain. Can Dower handle even more minutes without Sacre taking most of the punishment inside? Can Karnowski contribute right away at his projected level? Is Bell going to live up to his top 100 ranking?

It is hard to say that any of those are definite, especially given the ease with which the Bulldogs won their exhibition game. Any team could have looked like it was packed with stars given that result.

Now, to be realistic, you can't count out the Zags no matter how many doubts you have. Mark Few is not one to have his team fall apart totally, no matter the expectations. They may not be the top 25 team that is currently projected, but this team shouldn't miss the NCAA Tournament.

Bottom Line: Ho hum, it is another Gonzaga team with a lot of talent, and a lot of promise. That could get boring after a while, but the gap between the Bulldogs, St. Mary's and BYU is basically gone.

This conference doesn't belong to Gonzaga, and with the talent level so close among the three, you can imagine that the standings look very different than expected at the end of the season.

There is a lot to like about the Bulldogs, but some questions about how it all fits together on the court, minus Sacre, and with a front court heavy rotation.

Twenty wins should be no problem. The real question is how many of those come against the other two top teams in the league, not a given anymore.

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