As the season approaches, Mid-Major Madness will be taking a closer look at its preseason Power 15 teams.
Gone is the four-year starting backcourt duo of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr., the best backcourt in program history. Yet the Zags aren't expected to take a step back this season. What a luxury it must be for Mark Few and company to, rather than rebuild, forget about guards and trot out the nation's best frontcourt instead.
Gonzaga's 17 year run of NCAA Tournament appearances was built and sustained by a string of exceptional point guards. In recent years that wealth of talent has spread into the frontcourt. This season the shift in the balance of power is complete and it will be the big men who lead the way for the Zags.
All the hype begins with senior Kyle Wiltjer, who is our Mid-Major Madness preseason player of the year and a national Player of the Year candidate. He is Gonzaga's style of play personified. A lights out shooter from anywhere on the floor who will put up big numbers and, on the defensive end... well, he'll score enough points that defense hopefully won't come into play.
Just look at the numbers the 6-foot-10 forward put up last year. 16.8 points per game on 54% shooting from the field (46.6% from long range) to go along with 6.4 rebounds per game. He ranked ninth in the nation, per KenPom, with an offensive rating of 128.2.
With Wiltjer stretching the floor Gonzaga's two other bigs, and they're big, have ample room to operate inside.
Standing 7-foot-1 and weighing in at 287 pounds, senior Przemek Karnowski is one of the last true centers in the college game. A back to the basket scorer who shot 62.2% from the field last season, Karnowski has soft hands and great vision. Collapse on him in the post and he'll let the open man make you pay.
Perennially overlooked after three years playing alongside Elias Harris and Kelly Olynyk, then Sam Dower and now Wiltjer, the Karnivore is finally getting fed by the national hype machine. And by that I mean he's a preseason Kareem Abdul-Jabbar watch list finalist.
Coming off the bench to round out the Zags' frontcourt is sophomore Domantas Sabonis. The 6-foot-11 Lithuanian sophomore can score (9.7 points per game, on a blistering 66.8% from the field) but boy can he crash the boards. When on the floor last season Sabonis pulled down 13.4% of available offensive and 24.2% of available defensive rebounds for an average of 7.1 per game.
He'll be tallying double-doubles coming off the bench.
This wouldn't be a Gonzaga team without guards. It wouldn't be any college basketball team, actually. So, this wouldn't be a Gonzaga team without good guards and this year, even though they'll be playing second fiddle, there are some really good guards.
Enough of them, actually, that I can't easily predict which ones will be starters.
Redshirt freshman Josh Perkins was Kevin Pangos' apprentice at the start of last season, and the highly touted prospect delivered in a back-up role for the first five games. Then Georgia's Kenny Gaines kung-fu kicked Perkins in the face, breaking his jaw and sidelining him for the season.
The hit the 2014-15 Gonzaga squad took when Perkins went down should be more than made up for this season in the form of an experienced Silas Melson.
Melson and Perkins effectively traded a redshirt for a jersey on that night last November. This season the Zags have the former four star point guard in Perkins and a sophomore shooting guard in Melson with a year of college basketball under his belt.
Should the staff opt for experience instead, they have do-it-all glue guy Kyle Dranginis and former Vanderbilt point guard Eric McClellan. Dranginis, a redshirt senior, has embraced his x-factor role off coming off bench. McClellan, who missed the first semester due to NCAA transfer rules, showed flashes of great on-ball defending and decision making as he worked his way into the lineup.
Let's start with the obvious.
An 18th consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament, a fourth consecutive WCC title and another season as one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country —Gonzaga has finished in the top-ten of offensive efficiency six times since Ken Pomeroy began tracking the stat back in 2002 and only once finished outside the top 50 (51st in 2013-14).
Those are among the safest bets you can make in college basketball this season.
It's a testament to what Mark Few and his staff have built in Spokane that fans can and should realistically expect no drop off from last season. While it's hard to believe this team can be better on the court than the Zags of last season they could appear better, should things break right for them, in the polls at least.
Gonzaga's always-impressive non-conference schedule is once again loaded with big names. Except this year the biggest names are coming to the Kennel. After traveling to UCLA and Arizona last year, the Bruins and Wildcats return the favor this year. Big brands in down years, Pitt and Tennessee, will face the Zags on neutral sites in Okinawa and Seattle, respectively. The only true road game is 60 miles south at Washington State.
For their early-season tournament the Zags will be heading to the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis. They'll open against Washington and then get either Texas or Texas A&M. The other four teams are Syracuse, Michigan, UConn and Charlotte. Not bad, and Gonzaga is the favorite.
Gonzaga's schedule is loaded with good teams (Arizona, UCLA, Texas A&M, Texas, Connecticut and Michigan all received votes in the coaches poll), but only Arizona enters the season ranked higher than the Zags (10th to Gonzaga's 11th). So, it's a good yet very winnable set of games. Like I said, if things break right Gonzaga fans won't have to wait until WCC play, when win after win after win pushes them up if only by default, for the Zags to ascend towards the top of the polls.
There's a reason this team received the most first place votes in the preseason Power 15 (yet somehow managed to come in second). The prediction is that this is going to be another fantastic season for Gonzaga basketball.