Kevin Pangos (AP Photo)

Gonzaga’s Kevin Pangos, eyeing a Final Four, on last season: ‘It just wasn’t fun, I was in pain the whole time’

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UNION, N.J. — Gonzaga’s basketball team is held up as the bastion of mid-major hoops, proof positive that the limits created by conference affiliation, television revenue and a football program that neither Jim Delany nor Mike Slive give a damn about cannot keep a hoops team from playing high-major basketball.

And forget about calling the Zags a mid-major program. Gonzaga recruits nationally and internationally. They battle it out with programs from the traditional power conferences for top 50 and top 100 recruits. Josh Perkins, a top 75 point guard in the Class of 2014, picked the Zags over UCLA and Minnesota, among others. Kyle Wiltjer, a former McDonald’s all-american, transferred to Gonzaga from Kentucky.

Gonzaga is a high-major program, one of the top 25 basketball schools in the country.

They have been since Dan Monson, Matt Santangelo and company took them to within one possession of knocking off eventual national champs UConn in the Elite 8 back in 1999.

But the Zags haven’t made it back to the Elite 8 in 15 years. They’ve been to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament just twice since 2001: In 2006, when an Adam Morrison-led team blew a 17-point lead to UCLA, and in 2009, when they beat a No. 13 and No. 12 seed to get through the weekend. Five times in the last 13 NCAA tournaments, the Zags have been upset by a lower-seeded team. Only once in that time frame — back in 2011, when they beat St. John’s as a No. 11 seed — have they pulled off a real upset.

Once known as giant-killers, the cinderella you always pick in your bracket, Gonzaga’s developed a new reputation: overrated and perennially overhyped. It came to a head back in the 2013 NCAA tournament, when Kelly Olynyk and company were given the No. 1 overall seed, a fairly-controversial decision, only to lose in the Round of 32 to Wichita State, who eventually made the Final Four.

And you better believe that Gonzaga players have picked up on that rep.

“I definitely notice,” Kevin Pangos told NBCSports.com at the Point Guard Skills Academy last week. “I don’t listen to what people say so much because sometimes we do play great teams and lose. Sometimes it’s a tough situation like that.”

Pangos would know as well as anyone.

He’s been the face of Gonzaga basketball for the better part of three years, ever since he exploded on the scene by scoring 33 points and hitting nine threes in a blowout win over Washington State during ESPN’s 24-hour college hoops marathon. It was his first nationally-televised game as a freshman, but it may have been the last time that Pangos was truly a major part of college basketball’s national conversation. As a sophomore, Pangos was overshadowed as the Zags rode front court work horses Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris to the No. 1 overall seed. And this past season, Pangos was a shell of himself as he battled turf toe on one foot and a sprained ankle on the other.

“I was playing at 60%,” Pangos said. “It was so frustrating. I was just trying to help the team win and not make myself any worse. I was taped up and braced up, trying to stitch myself together.”

The issue, Pangos said, wasn’t just that those injuries cut down on his already limited explosiveness and lateral mobility. It killed his balance, making running off of screens and sprinting into open jumpers — his bread and butter — a painful endeavor.

“It just wasn’t fun,” he said. “I was in pain the whole time, because it was both feet. It wasn’t just one, both were hurt.”

The injuries were so bad that Pangos spent nearly three months after the season ended rehabbing, trying to get back to 100%. He would shoot, he said, but he wasn’t doing much running and didn’t even play live, 5-on-5 basketball until about a week before he left for the Point Guard Skills Academy.

“I’m better, but not quite 100%,” he said.

The health of their senior point guard will be key for the Zags next season, but Pangos won’t be forced to carry the entire load as the Zags will field a team that could find themselves in the top ten heading into the 2014-2015 season. Sam Dower graduates, as does David Stockton, but Mark Few has added more than enough pieces to reload. Four-star point guard Josh Perkins joins the program, as does Domantas Sabonis, a seven-foot Lithuanian that is the son of the great Arvydas Sabonis and would be a five-star recruit had he played his high school ball state-side. Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer will be eligible to play, as will USC transfer Byron Wesley and Vanderbilt castoff Eric McClellan.

Throw in returnees Gary Bell Jr., Przemek Karnowski, Kyle Dranginis and Angel Nunez, and what you get is a team with plenty of size, shooting, lineup versatility and depth.

The only thing that they’ll be short on next season is expectations.

“I want to peak at the right time,” Pangos said. “We’ve had good seasons, but we haven’t had any great years. Even when we were ranked No. 1, we didn’t end the year strong. So I want to have an all-around, strong year from start to finish. We might lose a few games here or there. But no matter what, I want us to have a full year. I need to get somewhere I’ve never been before: the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.”

“But I want to make it as far as we can, to a Final Four,” he added. “To get that experience in my last year. I don’t want to say that if we don’t make it, it will be a failure, but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I don’t want to miss out on.”

WCC Preview: ‘Zags favorites once more

Mark Few
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Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the WCC.

Since BYU moved into the conference five years ago, just once has a team outside Gonzaga, St. Mary’s and the Cougars finished inside the league’s top three. This year probably won’t be much different with that trio set to be as strong as ever. There’s change elsewhere around the league that could change the landscape, but not likely for some time.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. Gonzaga just reloads: The Bulldogs may have lost a lottery pick in Domantas Sabonis and first-team all-conference contributor in Kyle Wiltjer, but it’s not hard to envision Mark Few’s team being better this season. NBCSports.com preseason All-American Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington) and Johnathan Williams (Missouri) are eligible after transfers, as is Cal graduate transfer Jordan Mathews. The ‘Zags also add a McDonald’s All-American in freshman 7-footer Zach Collins and have Przmek Karnowski healthy after missing most of last season. This program is a well-oiled, winning machine. They’re talented enough that this could actually be the year they get to the Final Four.

2. Coaching turnover: Forty percent of the 10-team league has a new coach this season. Former NBA point guards Damon Stoudamire and Terry Porter took over at Pacific and Portland, respectively, while former Arizona State and N.C. State coach Herb Sendek replaced Kerry Keating at Santa Clara and Kyle Smith took over for Rex Walters at San Francisco.

That’s an astounding percentage, but in a league that’s being dominated by the same programs year-in and year-out, change is probably a good thing to shake up the status quo. The other problem? It’s virtually impossible to crack the top three in the WCC when it’s dominated by Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and BYU, which means that the rest of the league has become filled with dead-end jobs. Can you name the last time a WCC coach left for a better job? Jan Van Breda Kolff left Pepperdine in 2001 for St. Bonaventure.

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Nigel Williams-Goss (AP Photo/John Froschauer)

3. NBA infusion: Half of those four hires come with incredibly strong NBA credentials. Damon Stoudamire spent time on benches in Memphis (both in the NBA and college) and Arizona following his 13-year NBA career and is now in charge of cleaning up and straightening out Pacific after an academic scandal. Terry Porter spent 17 years in the NBA as a player and had head coaching gigs with the Bucks and Suns, but now returns to the city, Portland, where his retired number hangs in the Moda Center.

4. Can St. Mary’s build its resume: The Gaels won 29 games and defeated Gonzaga twice last year, but a loss in the conference tournament kept them out of the NCAA tournament for the third-straight year due to a poor at-large resume. St. Mary’s returns literally almost every player from that team and has bolstered its non-conference slate with road trips to Dayton and Stanford, plus UAB on a neutral. If the Gaels can’t capture the WCC tournament title, will they have enough to still make the Big Dance? Because talent isn’t the issue with them. Spoiler alert: St. Mary’s will crack our preseason top 25 when it is released.

5. Replacing Collinsworth: Gone is Kyle Collinsworth after posting 12 career triple-doubles and BYU records for rebounds and assists. The Cougars still have plenty of firepower, though, namely Nick Emery, who averaged 16.3 points as a freshman. Back is big man Eric Mika after a two-year mission, and Houston transfer L.J. Rose joins the program as well. That’s a solid core before you factor in the loaded freshmen class of T.J. Haws, Yoeli Childs and Payton Dastrup.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON WCC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga

An NBCSports.com second-team preseason All-American, Williams-Goss sat out last season after transfering from Washington to Spokane, and we’re expecting him to hit the ground rounding after a year away from competition. The 6-foot-3 guard averaged 15.6 points, 5.9 assists and 4.7 rebounds his last season at Washington and will have a huge role in leading a Final Four contending ‘Zags team.

SPOKANE, WA - JANUARY 14:  Josh Perkins #13 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs drives against defender Nick Emery #4 of the BYU Cougars in the first half of the game at McCarthey Athletic Center on January 14, 2016 in Spokane, Washington.  (Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images)
Josh Perkins drives against Nick Emery (William Mancebo/Getty Images)

THE REST OF THE WCC FIRST TEAM:

  • Przmek Karnowski, Gonzaga: If healthy, Karnowski is a devastating big man.
  • Jared Brownridge, Santa Clara: League’s top returning scorer after posting 20.6 ppg last year.
  • Nick Emery, BYU: Known for throwing a punch at a Utah player, but put up big numbers for the Cougars.
  • Emmett Naar, St. Mary’s:Scored 14 points and dished out over 6 assists per game for the 29-win Gaels.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Joe Rahon, St. Mary’s
  • Eric Mika, BYU
  • Josh Perkins, Gonzaga
  • Dane Pineau, St. Mary’s
  • Alec Wintering, Portland

BREAKOUT STAR: Jared Brownridge is going to have the latitude to hoist a ton of shots and if he’s making 40 percent of his 3s, he’s got a chance to put up even bigger numbers than last year. A big year from him could help push Santa Clara into relevance under new coach Herb Sendek.

Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett argues a call, during the first half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Gonzaga in Moraga, Calif., on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Randy Bennett isn’t on the hot seat or anything, but his team is coming off a disappointing miss of the NCAA tournament last year (for the third-straight season) and has a massive amount of expectation for this year. And Gonzaga somehow looks stronger than ever. That’s pressure.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : that the WCC is a two-bid league with Gonzaga and St. Mary’s.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT : Watching the battle for the league championship between the ‘Zags and Gaels.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • Dec. 7, Washington vs. Gonzaga
  • Dec. 3, Arizona vs. Gonzaga
  • Nov. 19, St. Mary’s vs. Dayton
  • Dec. 3, BYU vs. USC
  • Dec. 22, Valparaiso vs. Santa Clara

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @slipperstillfit

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Gonzaga: The top-tier talent will be enough to stave off the challengers.
2. St. Mary’s: They won’t knock off Gonzaga, but the Gaels should still be dancing.
3. BYU: Dave Rose has a solid core that will grow into a contender with time. They’re probably a year away from truly contending.
4. Santa Clara: Predicting a big year for Jared Brownridge means Santa Clara will be the best of the rest in the WCC.
5. Pepperdine: A strong core of returnees plus stability on the bench will propel the Waves to the top half of the conference.
6. Portland: Terry Porter will be leaning heavily on senior Alec Wintering to produce in his first year.
7. Loyola Marymount: LMU lost Adom Jacko to the pros but welcomes Stefan Jovanovic (Hawaii) and Trevor Manuel (Oregon) as transfers
8. San Francisco: New coach Kyle Smith inherits a roster without much stability.
9. Pacific: Expect a bumpy ride for first-year head coach Damon Stoudamire.
10. San Diego: After finishing in the basement last year, the Toreros lost their leading scorer and best interior presence, so there’s not a lot of expectation.

LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 08:  Emmett Naar #3 of the Saint Mary's Gaels brings the ball up the court against the Gonzaga Bulldogs during the championship game of the West Coast Conference Basketball tournament at the Orleans Arena on March 8, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Gonzaga won 85-75.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Emmett Naar (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

New England border war could decide America East title

WEST LAFAYETTE, IN - NOVEMBER 15: Trae Bell-Haynes #2 of the Vermont Catamounts drives to the basket as P.J. Thompson #3 of the Purdue Boilermakers defends at Mackey Arena on November 15, 2015 in West Lafayette, Indiana. Purdue defeated Vermont 107-79. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the America East conference.

After four title appearances in the past five seasons, Stony Brook finally captured an America East Conference championship and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history. Shortly after an 85-57 loss to Kentucky in the first round, Jameel Warney, the three-time America East Player of the Year and two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Carson Puriefoy, an all-America East first team selection, and Rayshaun McGrew, another double digit scorer, all graduated. Before that, on March 19, it was announced that Stony Brook head coach Scott Pikiell was hired by Rutgers.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

It’s more than fair to assume the America East will have a new champion this season. In 2016-17, it may be a border battle between two New England programs.

Vermont, which led Stony Brook by 15 before dropping the 2016 America East title game to the Seawolves, should be tabbed as the favorite. The Catamounts graduated forward Ethan O’Day, but retain essentially every other key piece. The team will be led by Trae Bell-Haynes, who led the team with 12.2 points per game. Taking on an ever larger leadership role, the emphasis for the 6-foot-2 junior is protecting the ball as he looks to cut down on turnovers this season. He’ll be joined on the wing by Ernie Duncan, who averaged double figures in his redshirt freshman season and Kurt Steidl, who started all 36 games for the Catamounts during the 2015-16 season. The frontline will miss the 11.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game O’Day provided, but that void can be filled by a pair of Tulane transfers. Payton Henson, a 6-foot-8 forward, should add a level of toughness to the frontcourt, while Josh Hearlihy should add versatility with the ability to play 3-5 and guard pretty much every position on the floor. The Catamounts have the depth that few teams in the league can compete with night-in and night-out.

With Vermont’s additions down low, this league may come down to the frontcourt. New Hampshire boasts arguably the best one in the conference, headlined by Tanner Leissner. The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 15.9 points and 7.3 boards per game during the 2015-16 season. The frontcourt also includes Iba Camara, the team’s top rebounder also returns from a season ago. Jaleen Smith, a well-rounded guard, who averaged 13.4 points 5.5 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game, will anchor the backcourt, while fellow guard Joe Bramanti will be in charge of locking down the opponent’s top perimeter threat. The Wildcats are coming off a program-record 20 wins and in a good position to secure its first-ever bid into the NCAA Tournament.

MORE: All-Americans | Impact Transfers | Expert Picks

Albany was in the tournament only two seasons ago. However, the Great Danes have lost its three top scorers — Evan Singletary, Peter Hooley and Ray Sanders. Albany’s attempt to reload begins with whether Joe Cremo, the America East Rookie and Sixth Man of the Year. The 6-foot-4 guard, who averaged 10.5 points and shot 51 percent from the field and 37 percent from three, will be surrounded by a core of junior college transfers. If Will Brown can get this group of newcomers to mesh quickly, the Great Danes can be a legitimate threat. Stony Brook enters the season with a new coach, Jeff Boals, who spent the past seven season at Ohio State. The Seawolves also enter the 2016-17 campaign without 60 percent of its scoring and 50 percent of its rebounding from a season ago. Ahmad Walker will be the focal point for the Seawolves, but how will he handle being “the man” as opposed to being a supporting member?

Binghamton, which returns all five starters, headlined by Willie Rodriguez, has the best chance to make a jump up the conference standings. The Bearcats should serve as a sleeper pick in the America East. Binghamton was in the top half of the league in defensive efficiency, but had one of the worst offenses in all of Division I. Tommy Dempsey has made changes to the backcourt which should improve the ‘Cats’ offensive woes. UMBC guard Jairus Lyles, the top returning scorer in the conference, will anchor a talented perimeter, but the frontcourt is cause for concern, especially in a league where the two favorites are strong in that department.

Hartford and Maine both took big hits this offseason when leading scorers Pancake Thomas (Hartford) and Isaac Vann (Maine) elected to transfer. UMass Lowell, in its third season in Division I basketball, returns three double-figure scorers. The Riverhawks remain ineligible for postseason play for one more season.

EAST LANSING, MI - DECEMBER 5:  Matt McQuaid #20 of the Michigan State Spartans tries to steal the ball from Willie Rodriguez #42 of the Binghamton Bearcats  during the first half at Breslin Center on December 5, 2015 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)
Willie Rodriguez (42) of Binghamton (Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

PRESEASON AMERICA EAST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Tanner Leissner, New Hampshire

In a league that doesn’t have a dominating senior, New Hampshire junior forward Tanner Leissner has a chance to be the league’s top player. He ended the 2015-16 season averaging 15.9 points and 7.3 boards per game and scored 20 or more points 11 times in 30 games. The skilled forward has been part of a winning culture in Durham in his two seasons — 19 wins in 2014-15, a record-setting 20 last year — and has the potential to lead New Hampshire to the conference’s top spot.

 

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON AMERICA EAST TEAM:

  • Trae Bell-Haynes, Vermont: Known for coming up big in crucial situations, Bells-Haynes has the keys to the Catamounts entering this year. He’s the leading scorer and will be in charge of running the offense. Cutting down the turnovers can only help Vermont’s tournament hopes.
  • Willie Rodriguez, Binghamton: The 6-foot-6 small forward has the chance to be the conference player of the year; a player who can turn the Bearcats from rebuild mode to competitor.
  • Ahmad Walker, Stony Brook: The 6-foot-4 guard recorded six double-double a season ago. Will need to be a fixture on offense as he is on defense for the Seawolves this year.
  • Jairus Lyles, UMBC: The VCU transfer became eligible after the first semester, scoring 23.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists in 36.2 minutes per game.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @ryanarestivo

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Vermont
2. New Hampshire
3. Albany
4. Binghamton
5. UMBC
6. Stony Brook
7. Hartford
8. UMass Lowell
9. Maine

Abdul-Jabbar writing book about UCLA coach John Wooden

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Book Discussion For "Streetball Crew Book 2 Stealing The Game"
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NEW YORK (AP) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s next book will be a fond look back at his long friendship with John Wooden, the celebrated basketball coach at UCLA.

“Coach Wooden and Me” will be published next June and will combine personal memories and lessons learned from his friend and mentor, Grand Central Publishing told The Associated Press on Wednesday. Wooden, who died in 2010, coached 10 NCAA championship teams at UCLA. Three titles were won while Abdul-Jabbar, then called Lew Alcindor, was the Bruins’ star center.

Abdul-Jabbar, who went on to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, remained close to Wooden. In a statement released through Grand Central, he called Wooden a great coach and “an even better teacher and friend.” Abdul-Jabbar’s other books include the memoir “Giant Steps” and the novel “Mycroft Holmes.”

Five-star Bowen cuts list to six

JACKSONVILLE, FL - MARCH 19:  Mississippi Rebels and Xavier Musketeers players run by the logo at mid-court during the second round of the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena on March 19, 2015 in Jacksonville, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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Five-star 2017 prospect Brian Bowen has trimmed his list of possible collegiate destinations to six.

Creighton, North Carolina State, UCLA, Michigan State, Arizona and Texas are still under consideration, Bowen announced Wednesday evening.

Bowen, a consensus top-20 recruit, is a 6-foot-8 small forward out of Sagniaw, Mich., but he currently is attending the prestigious La Lumiere School in Indiana. He’s also the cousin of former Michigan State star Jason Richardson, leaving many to believe that he’s a heavy Spartan lean.

“People think I’m 100 percent to Michigan State,” Bowen told Brendan Quinn of MLive.com earlier this month. “I love them to death and I’ve been there my whole life and everything — it’s a great coaching staff and everything — but I’m not 100 percent to a school until I commit there. Right now, I’m open to the schools that are recruiting.”

Bowen hasn’t said when he plans on making a final decision.

Indiana’s Hartman undergoes knee surgery

Indiana's Collin Hartman (30) and Yogi Ferrell (11) celebrate late in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Iowa, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, in Bloomington, Ind. Indiana won 85-78. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
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Indiana senior Collin Hartman underwent surgery to repair damage on his left knee, the school announced Wednesday.

The Hoosiers provided no timetable for Hartman’s return following a non-contact injury he suffered in practice last week.

“Any time you see one of your players go down to injury,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said in a statement, “it tears you up as a person and as a program — even more so when it’s someone like Collin Hartman, who has been a huge part of our success and is in his senior year. We all look forward to helping him recover and rehabilitate.”

After playing sparingly as a freshman, Hartman has been a role player for the Hoosiers the last two seasons, averaging right around 20 minutes per game. He put up 5.0 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.7 assists last year as a junior.

The school hasn’t released the nature or severity of the Hartman’s injury, so it’s impossible to even guess when he might be able to suit up next for the Hoosiers, who are a likely top-15 team heading into the season.

Indiana opens the year in a big way on Nov. 11, facing off against Kansas in the Armed Forces Classic in Honolulu.