October 19, 2011

Preseason Top 32: No. 18 Gonzaga

STRENGTHS: If Gonzaga's frontcourt isn't the West Coast's best, it's certainly in the conversation. The Zags feature a stable of quality big men headlined by 7-foot senior Robert Sacre and 6-7 junior Elias Harris, both all-conference players who complement each other extremely well. A true center who makes up for a lack of explosiveness with effort and skill, Sacre averaged 12.5 points and a team-high 6.3 rebounds last season and played sound defense in the paint; he led the WCC with 66 blocks. Harris can score from the perimeter or on an array of post moves, though his production fell a bit last season because of Gonzaga's lack of a pure point guard, an offseason shoulder injury and an early-season Achilles injury that limited his explosiveness. Behind Sacre and Harris, the Zags have big men who would start for some Pac-12 schools, let alone in the lower half of the West Coast Conference. WCC all-freshman pick Sam Dower posted 7.6 points and 3.3 boards in just more than 14 minutes per game last season, while 7-foot F Kelly Olynyk has shown flashes of promise.

C Robert Sacre (7-0/260, Sr.)
F Elias Harris (6-7/240, Jr.)
F Guy Landry Edi (6-6/218, Jr.)
G Marquise Carter (6-4/178, Sr.)
G David Stockton (5-11/165, Soph.)
F/C Sam Dower (6-9/248, Soph.)
F Kelly Olynyk (7-0/238, Jr.)
F Ryan Spangler (6-8/232, Fr.)
G Gary Bell Jr. (6-1/205, Fr.)
G Kevin Pangos (6-1/180, Fr.)
G Mathis Keita (6-5/200, Soph.)

Coach: Mark Few (13th season at Gonzaga)
Last season's record: 25-10 overall, 11-3 in West Coast Conference (1st in league)
Postseason: Lost to BYU in second round of NCAA tournament
Final regular-season RPI: 56th
Last time didn't make NCAA field: 1998

WEAKNESSES: Point guard was Gonzaga's weakest position a year ago, so the decision of defensive stopper Demetri Goodson to transfer to Baylor to play football amplified the problem. Now the Zags will have to rely on either sophomore David Stockton (John's son) or freshman Kevin Pangos to get the ball up the floor, distribute it to their scorers and keep opposing point guards out of the lane. A walk-on whose increased role late last season coincided with Gonzaga's second-half resurgence, Stockton is a steady pass-first player whose lack of athleticism makes it difficult for him defensively. Stockton averaged just 4.2 points and 15.6 minutes, and he made a huge 3-pointer in the WCC championship game victory over Saint Mary's. Pangos has the greater upside and defensive ability, but he may need a year of grooming before he's ready to take over the position. Steven Gray's graduation removes Gonzaga's top perimeter scorer and the top assist man from its lineup, but the Zags appear better stocked at wing than point guard. Fifth-year senior Marquise Carter scored in double figures in eight of Gonzaga's final 14 games, including a 24-point effort in the NCAA tournament victory over St. John's. Carter was the WCC's newcomer of the year last season after arriving from Three Rivers Community College in Poplar Bluff, Mo. He was named the most valuable player of the WCC tournament. JC transfer Guy Landry Edi is athletic and known for his defense, and Gary Bell Jr. is the team's top freshman. He's the No. 75 prospect in the 2011 recruiting class.

OVERVIEW: Gonzaga has won at least a share of 11 consecutive WCC regular-season titles, the second-longest string of conference championships in history, behind UCLA's 13 consecutive Pac-8 crowns from 1967-79. The Bulldogs' path to a 12th championship in a row could prove a little tougher. In addition to a non-conference schedule featuring the likes of Xavier, Arizona, Illinois and Butler, Gonzaga's league schedule won't be as pushover-laden as it was during the early years of Mark Few's coaching tenure. BYU's arrival, the sustained success of Saint Mary's and the continued improvement of Santa Clara and San Francisco make the WCC appear to be especially formidable this season. Gonzaga has the firepower to thrive despite its difficult schedule thanks to a strong returning core from a team that last season weathered an unusual number of early losses to win 25 games and advance to the NCAA tournament. If the Zags don't win the WCC and make a strong bid to get to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament this year, their season likely will be remembered as a disappointment.

Rivals.com's Steve Megargee contributed to this report.

Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger, Y! Sports' college basketball blog. Email him, and follow him on Twitter.

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