The off-season has been a good one for west coast college basketball, a much-needed change given the struggles of the region’s most prestigious basketball league.
Many have rushed to declare the Pac-12 as being “back” thanks to the recruiting hauls brought in by Arizona and UCLA, not to mention the wealth of experience due back at Stanford.
In the Mountain West it’s been UNLV, a team that’s loaded with talent when looking at both returnees and newcomers, and San Diego State hasn’t been far behind in the chatter either.
But for all the excitement being drummed up by those programs, it’s important that people don’t ignore the region’s most consistent program over the last decade.
That would be Gonzaga, who in spite of the graduation of guard Marquise Carter and big man Robert Sacre will have enough talent back to improve upon their 26-7 mark of a season ago.
“Maybe a little bit. A lot of those big-time schools have accomplished a lot in the past,” said senior forward Elias Harris, who took part in the LeBron James Skills Academy last weekend, when asked if the Bulldogs are being overlooked.
Harris averaged 13.1 points and a team-best 8.5 rebounds per game last season, shooting 50.2% from the field and 41.4% from beyond the arc.
While losing Sacre takes away some valuable size for the Bulldogs, it may open things up for Harris from a responsibility standpoint.
“I need to be that type of player that can out-hustle guys,” said Harris. “That’s what I was trying to do: out-hustle guys, get rebounds, try to stop people on the defensive end and that helps you get better on the offensive end.”
In addition to Harris up front the Bulldogs welcome back Sam Dower and Guy Landry Edi, and the return of 7-footer Kelly Olynyk from a redshirt season will help account for the loss of Sacre.
And given how well point guard Kevin Pangos played as a freshman it’s going to be interesting to see how he progresses with a year of experience under his belt (the same goes for Gary Bell, Jr.).
Defensively the Bulldogs won’t wow people with the steals and blocks, but they didn’t last season and ranked 34th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency (per Ken Pomeroy’s website).
But while the debate of who the best team in the western United States is one that will be on the radar of many college basketball fans, the first thing for Gonzaga will be to reclaim the top spot in the WCC.
Saint Mary’s, who loses Rob Jones but returns a number of key contributors led by point guard Matthew Dellavedova, won the regular season and postseason tournament crowns last season.
BYU should also be formidable despite losing Noah Hartsock thanks to the return of Matt Carlino and Brandon Davies, and Loyola Marymount has one of the nation’s best guards in Anthony Ireland.
The climb back to the top certainly won’t come without its challenges for Mark Few’s program, but they’ve got the pieces in place to get it done.