Top 25 Countdown: No. 19 Gonzaga Bulldogs

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 26-7, 13-3 WCC (2nd); Lost in the Round of 32 to Ohio State

Head Coach: Mark Few

Key Losses: Robert Sacre, Marquise Carter

Newcomers: Przemek Karnowski

Projected Lineup:

G: Kevin Pangos, So.
G: Gary Bell, So.
F: Guy Landry Edy, Sr.
F: Elias Harris, Sr.
C: Sam Dower, Jr.
Bench: Przemek Karnowski, Fr.; David Stockton, Jr.; Mike Hart, Sr.; Kelly Olynyk, Jr.; Kyle Draginis, Fr.

Outlook: For the first time in 12 years, Gonzaga will not be entering a season as the reigning WCC champs. Not only did Gonzaga finish second behind St. Mary’s in the WCC regular season standings, the Zags lost to the Gaels in the WCC tournament title game. And while that was likely a bitter pill for the good folks of Spokane to swallow, the good news is that Mark Few brings back an intriguing roster that will be expected to bring the WCC crown back to town.

It starts in the back court for the Zags, who return one of the nation’s most promising duos. Kevin Pangos is the star, thanks in large part to the fact that he kicked off he collegiate career by putting up 33 points — including 9-13 shooting from three — against Washington State on ESPN in the opening game of their annual Kickoff Marathon. That was far from the only big game that Pangos had last season; he went for 27 in a win over St. Mary’s in February and 30 in the regular season finale against BYU.

The issue for Pangos is that he was too streaky, as freshmen that rely on their ability to shoot and score the ball are wont to do. He was 3-18 from the floor in an overtime loss to St. Mary’s in the WCC title game and 3-13 in the loss to Ohio State in the NCAA tournament. He’ll get better — both with his consistency and his decision-making — as he matures and develops, so don’t be surprised if Pangos ends up being the next in the Dan Dickau-Derek Raivio pipeline.

The good news for Zags fans is that Pangos is not the only potential star that will take residence in Few’s back court this season, as he will once again be joined in the starting lineup by fellow sophomore Gary Bell Jr. Bell finished last season as one of the nation’s most dangerous three-point shooters while showing flashes, especially late in the season, of having the potential to develop into one of the best off-guards in the country.

But where Bell’s importance to Gonzaga truly lies in his ability to defend on the perimeter, because when he’s joined by senior Guy Landry Edy on the wing, the Zags all of sudden have a pair of tough, athletic and physical defenders. That’s important because Pangos — and back up point guard David Stockton, who was used alongside Pangos often last season — are not great on-the-ball defenders.

One guy to keep an eye on is redshirt freshman guard Kyle Dranginis. A two-time Gatorade State Player of the Year in Idaho, Dranginis opted to sit out last season instead of wasting a year of eligibility trying break into the rotation, but that doesn’t mean he can’t play. At 6-foot-5, Dranginis has drawn comparisons to Matt Bouldin. He doesn’t have blazing speed, but he’s an excellent passer with deep range on his jump shot.

Gonzaga will be anchored up front by Elias Harris, who it feels like will be returning for his 13th season of college basketball. Harris burst onto the national scene as a freshman, putting up impressive enough numbers that there were folks — myself included — surprised to see him back for his sophomore campaign. After battling injuries as a sophomore, Harris had a somewhat disappointing, albeit promising, junior year. Harris reaffirm his potential as a lottery pick last year, but his value as a piece to Gonzaga’s puzzle skyrocketed. By the end of the season, Harris was Few’s best rebounder and one of his best post defenders. That’s big news given the fact that Robert Sacre has graduated. Throw in the fact that Harris is now hitting over 40% from three, turning into a deadly weapon spreading the floor, and it’s quite obvious the value he has at that position.

It will be interesting to see who starts and who plays major minutes alongside Harris this season. Junior Sam Dower, who has had a promising couple of seasons, returns with his first shot at getting serious minutes. Dower is a guy that many have predicted will have a breakout season. He’s an active rebounder that can score in the post, knock down an open jumper and hit free throws. The other option is Polish import Przemek Karnowski, who has quite a bit of hype surrounding him. Standing 7-foot-1 and somewhere around 275-300 pounds, Karnowski has drawn comparisons to Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol: he’s big, he’s got a soft touch, he’s got crafty post moves and he can really pass the ball.

The problem? He’s going to be overmatched from an athleticism and conditioning standpoint, especially as a freshman. But Gonzaga beat out a number of high-profile programs for Karnowski, and his ranking as No. 32 on the Draft Express top 100 list — right in between Arizona’s three high-profile freshman big men — should tell you all you need to know about his potential.

Gonzaga also gets Kelly Olynyk back this season, a lanky and active 6-foot-11 junior that spent last year as a redshirt. That quartet of bigs will give Few the ideal combination of size, athleticism and versatility for a front court.

Predictions?: I really like the makeup of this Gonzaga team. They have a pair of talented scorers in their back court and a front court rotation that can give a multitude of different looks. They have depth, they are balanced and they are experienced; even their two sophomore stars have already started for a full season. I think Gonzaga is the favorite in the WCC heading into the season, and the expectation should be for a trip to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Grand Canyon lands Oregon graduate transfer guard Casey Benson

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Grand Canyon landed an important piece for its NCAA tournament push on Saturday night as Oregon graduate transfer guard Casey Benson pledged to the Antelopes.

The 6-foot-3 Benson will be eligible right away as spent the past three seasons with the Ducks as a key reserve guard, helping Oregon to multiple deep NCAA tournament runs. Benson picked Grand Canyon over Wisconsin for his final season of college basketball as Benson’s brother, T.J., is an assistant coach with the Antelopes.

Benson shot 40 percent from three-point range last season while also being a steady ball handler over the course of his career at Oregon as he has only 81 career turnovers in over 2,600 career minutes with the Ducks. While Benson wasn’t asked to score a lot for a loaded Oregon team that featured multiple bucket-getters, he could be asked to do more at Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon is eligible for the NCAA tournament for the first time next season as the addition of Benson gives them an experienced guard who should be more of a factor in the WAC. The Antelopes are coming off of a 22-9 season in which they finished 11-3 in conference play.

With great facilities and a quickly-growing fan base, head coach Dan Majerle has the potential makings of a perennial mid-major conference contender if he continues to recruit well to Grand Canyon.

Colorado adds commitment from Class of 2017 point guard McKinley Wright

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Colorado landed one of the best available point guards for next season on Friday as Class of 2017 floor general McKinley Wright committed during an official visit.

A former Dayton commit who opted out of his recruitment after former head coach Archie Miller took the Indiana job, Wright was one of the best available point guards left as he played last weekend on the adidas Gauntlet in front of college coaches with D1 Minnesota.

The 6-foot-0 Wright gives the Buffaloes another ball handler and distributor as he was Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball during this past season. As a senior, Wright averaged 22.9 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game.

It’s always hard to say if spring recruits who elevate a level in recruiting after decommitting are making the correct decision, but Wright looked the part of a high-major lead guard last weekend, and Colorado wasn’t the only high-major program that was pushing hard to add Wright at this late stage.

Oral Roberts to hire Baylor assistant coach Paul Mills

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Oral Roberts has found its new head coach as they will hire Baylor assistant coach Paul Mills, as first reported by NBCSports.com’s Rob Dauster.

Mills had been on staff with the Bears since 2003 as he’s been a big factor in why head coach Scott Drew has been able to turn around that program. A graduate of Texas A&M, Mills has been a full-time assistant at Baylor since the 2009 season.

“I am honored to accept this role of representing this historic institution, its students and its mission,” Mills said in a release. “Making this commitment today is a highlight of my career and I look forward with excitement to the basketball season directly ahead. Go Golden Eagles.”

Mills will replace former head coach Scott Sutton, who was relieved of his duties this offseason after 18 years at the helm.

 

Iowa commit Connor McCaffery to redshirt in basketball to pursue baseball

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Iowa commit Connor McCaffery is in a unique spot when he starts his freshman year in Iowa City next year.

Not only is the 6-foot-4 guard the son of basketball head coach Fran McCaffery, while being a four-star national basketball prospect, but Connor also has a bright future in baseball.

There was a lot of speculation as to what Connor might do for his future in athletics and he gave more clarification on what he might be looking to do on Friday.

McCaffery has decided to redshirt in basketball next season to focus on the beginnings of his baseball career at Iowa. A walk-on for both sports, the move enables Connor McCaffery to potentially play three years of basketball with his younger brother, Patrick, who is also a heralded basketball recruit for Iowa. This move also gives Connor the best chance to pursue both sports while he’ll also help out a young Iowa basketball team with its tough scholarship scenario.

Butler, Chris Holtmann agree to a contract extension

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Butler has agreed to a contract extension with head coach Chris Holtmann, the school announced on Friday, that will keep him under contract through 2025.

“Butler truly is a special place, and my family and I are thankful to be part of a great academic institution and an athletics department that is a source of pride for those who embrace Butler and The Butler Way,” said Holtmann. “Our student-athletes, our staff, and so many throughout our campus are remarkable at what they do, and I’m excited to continue to work alongside them.”

Holtmann was named Big East Coach of the Year after leading the Bulldogs to a 25-9 record and a spot in the Sweet 16. In three years with the program, Holtmann has a record of 70-31.

“Chris is a tremendous ambassador for Butler and the Butler Way, and his leadership has resulted in success both on and off the court for the talented young men in our program,” said Butler Vice President/Director of Athletics Barry Collier. “This commitment – both by our university and by Chris – allows the momentum within our program to continue.”

Holtmann was in the mix for a couple of jobs this spring, including N.C. State and Missouri.