Gonzaga earned a blowout win over Eastern Oregon on Saturday night in an exhibition game, but the team lost sophomore center Domantas Sabonis in the first half after he took a hard fall on his back.
According to a report from Jim Meehan of The Spokesman-Review, Sabonis landed on the small of his back early in the first half. The sophomore tried to return to action later, but showed signs of discomfort:
“He just came down on it (lower back) really hard,” coach Mark Few said. “At this point, I have to sit down and talk to the trainer and we’ll have to see how bad it is. It was giving him some problems when he went back out and tried to play.”
Gonzaga’s rotation is essentially nine deep, counting Sabonis, one of the team’s four bigs. When the 6-foot-11 sophomore headed to the bench following his brief return, he chatted with Few for a few seconds, then swung a towel in frustration. He sat on the bench with a heat pad on his back/hip, rising slowly from his seat during timeouts. He’s expected to see a doctor Sunday.
While it doesn’t seem like Sabonis hurt anything that badly if he tried to play more in a meaningless game, it does give Gonzaga some concerns about how he’ll look in the season opener against Pitt. That’s because the game is being played in Okinawa, Japan as part of the Armed Forces Classic. Gonzaga leaves for Japan on Tuesday, which means the 6-foot-11 Sabonis will have to endure about 18 hours on a plane with a bad back. It’s hard enough for someone that size to be on a flight that long, let alone with an ailing back. Will Sabonis be healthy enough to be a major factor in that game?
Besides Sabonis going down with injury, Gonzaga has to be concerned about its lack of perimeter shooting in the win. The Zags were only 5-for-31 from 3-point range and didn’t shoot particularly well overall. Senior Kyle Wiltjer had a huge outing with 33 points and 14 rebounds, but Gonzaga is going to need more from their backcourt to be an elite team this season.
Guard situation unsettled at No. 9 Gonzaga, front court set
SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) No. 9 Gonzaga will enter the season set just about everywhere except at guard, a position of stability for years that now raises questions.
Not that coach Mark Few is without potential answers.
Four-year starting guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. graduated along with senior transfer Byron Wesley, leaving the Zags looking for the right back court combination among a host of talented options as they seek another deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
Freshman Josh Perkins, who is a candidate to replace Pangos at point guard, said practices have been intense as he battles with fellow guards Kyle Dranginis, Eric McClellan and Silas Melson to catch the eye of coaches.
“We are all playing for minutes,” Perkins said. “We’re going to push each other.”
Gonzaga’s situation is settled elsewhere. The Zags return the talented front court of Kyle Wiltjer, Domantas Sabonis and Przemek Karnowski to a team that reached the Elite Eight last season, though Few said “this team is a little void of leaders.”
“This is very much a team that will hopefully be on a growth trend all year,” Few said. “We are trying to hit the Zags standard.”
Much of Gonzaga’s success will depend on the three big men, who are all considered pro prospects.
The 6-foot-10 Wiltjer led the Zags in scoring with 16.8 points per game last season and added 6.2 rebounds.
“Kyle is as skilled a player as there is in college basketball,” Few said. “As skilled as I’ve ever coached.”
Sabonis, the 6-11 son of former NBA center Arvydas Sabonis, averaged 9.7 points and 7.1 rebounds per game as a freshman off the bench.
“With Domas, you get the heart of a lion,” Few said. “The guy is so physical, tough and aggressive and yet has a good feel for the game.”
The 7-foot-1 Karnowski averaged 10.9 points and 5.8 rebounds per game and blocked 39 shots.
“Shem is the unsung hero in all this and a guy I think will be a solid NBA guy for years,” Few said. “An excellent passer, great footwork and a high-level defender.”
The Zags went 35-3 last season, losing to eventual national champion Duke in the Elite Eight. They were 17-1 in the West Coast Conference, losing only at home to BYU.
WCC coaches have picked the Zags to win their fourth straight league title and 15th in the past 16 years. They have played in 17 straight NCAA tournaments, one of the longest streaks in the nation.
Things to watch at Gonzaga this season:
THE SCHEDULE: Gonzaga plays its typical killer nonconference schedule, designed to make up for playing in the modest WCC. This year they open against Pittsburgh in Okinawa, Japan, play Washington in the Bahamas, host No. 12 Arizona and UCLA in Spokane, play Tennessee in Seattle and SMU in Dallas.
THE GREAT KARNOWSKI: Karnowski, who goes by Shem, is on the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Center of the Year watch list. The native of Poland clogs up the middle with his bulky frame and shot .622 from the field last year. Karnowski played with the Polish national team in the European Championships.
WILTJER DOESN’T WILT: Forward Kyle Wiltjer was named the CBS Sports Preseason Player of the Year. Last season he led the team with 16.8 points per game and shot a team-best .466 from behind the arc while making 68 3-pointers. Wiltjer played two years at Kentucky, where he won a national title. Last year was his first with the Zags, and he was named an AP Third-Team All-American.
RELOADING: The cupboard is never bare at Gonzaga. This year they have three transfers sitting out who become eligible next season. They include Nigel Williams-Goss, who led Washington in scoring last season, plus Johnathan Williams from Missouri and Jeremy Jones from Rice.
No. 9 Gonzaga’s depth on display in comfortable win at UCLA
One week after suffering their lone defeat of the 2014-15 season, No. 9 Gonzaga was once again on the road facing a Pac-12 opponent. However unlike No. 3 Arizona, which defeated the Bulldogs in overtime last Saturday, Mark Few’s team took on a UCLA squad that lacked the depth needed to win a game of this caliber. And that’s how things played out at Pauley Pavilion, as Gonzaga won 87-74 with two newcomers leading the way.
Kyle Wiltjer scored a game-high 24 points and Byron Wesley added 20 on the night, and Gonzaga’s first 15 points were scored by players who didn’t see any game action last season. While Wiltjer was sitting out per NCAA transfer rules Wesley was toiling in relative obscurity at USC, where a lack of wins led to many overlooking his individual achievements, and Domantas Sabonis (ten points, six rebounds) was playing in Europe.
Those three combined to score 29 of Gonzaga’s 38 first half points, and just as important was the Bulldogs’ play on the defensive end of the floor. UCLA shot just 32.3% from the field in the first half, and Steve Alford’s Bruins nearly had as many turnovers (nine) as made field goals (ten).
Unlike Gonzaga, which has the pieces needed to account for a quiet half or game from a key contributor, UCLA needs all of its best weapons to perform well if they’re to beat high-level opposition.
Gonzaga kept Bryce Alford (23 points) under wraps in the first half, limiting him to five points on 2-for-7 shooting, and in the second half Norman Powell managed to score just four points. Add in a quiet night from Tony Parker (five points, nine rebounds) and UCLA found itself fighting an uphill battle.
Gonzaga’s depth gives them a margin for error that some teams just don’t have, and that was the case for UCLA. And while the Bulldogs may not have landed the knockout blow that could have turned this game into a blowout in the second half, they had more than enough production to maintain a comfortable margin. Gary Bell Jr. and Kevin Pangos scored nine points apiece, and that level of production wasn’t an issue for Gonzaga because others were ready to step forward.
NEW YORK — Kevin Pangos is the star of this Gonzaga team. He’s the engine that makes their powerhouse offense operate, a sharp-shooting, turnover-free point guard that has been arguably the best player in the country through the first two weeks of the season.
His raw numbers are not overly impressive — 12.0 points, 6.3 assists, 47.6 percent from three — but if you dig deeper, those stats jump off the page. Pangos’ offensive rating, according to Kenpom.com, is 166.0, and while it’s still very early, that number is unheard of. His effective field goal percentage is 76.5, his assist rate is 33.0 and his turnover percentage is 8.7, all of which would lead the nation if he somehow miraculously kept that pace.
Those numbers too intense for you? This is all you really need to know: through six games, Pangos has missed only 15 shots and turned the ball over just four times.
“I sleep a solid eight hours a night.” head coach Mark Few said of having Pangos as his point guard. “I’m trying to get him a fifth year. Why not give one to him and keep my stress level down?”
“It’s just good to be healthy again,” Pangos said.
I bet it is.
Pangos deserves every droplet of hype and praise that he’ll get over the course of the next four months, but it’s important to note that the reason this Gonzaga team is so dangerous has just as much to do with their front line as it does with their all-american point guard.
Mark Few’s front court rotation is more or less a three-headed monster, with all three pieces having a unique skill set that gives the Gonzaga head coach the freedom of having a versatile lineup, creating and minimizing mismatches as he sees fit.
It starts with the big fella, 7-foot-1 Przemek Karnowski. He’s tall, he’s long, he doesn’t get moved out of position easily and what he does best is, essentially, taking up as much space as possible around the rim. You’re not finishing over him and you’re not backing him down, which means that he can guard opposing bigs in the post or work as a rim protector if the Zags go to their zone. Offensively, he’s big enough to establish position and has enough touch around the basket to be a threat to score the ball.
Kyle Wiltjer is a completely different player. He can legitimately stretch the floor out to 25 feet, which only creates more space for Karnowski, and is a threat to score with his back to the basket or when he’s forced to square a defender up. The knock on Wiltjer is that he’s not a defender or a rebounder, bordering on being a liability at that end.
The third option, the sixth-man for the Zags, is freshman Domas Sabonis, the son of Arvydas and a 6-foot-10, left-handed freshman that spent time playing in the highest level of the Spanish pro leagues. Sabonis is a bit raw offensively, but he’s the most athletic of Gonzaga’s bigs, he runs the floor exceptionally well and he is active on the glass and in the paint. He’s also quick enough defensively that he can switch on ball-screens. Angel Nunez, a Louisville transfer that doesn’t play many minutes, is the fourth big man off the bench for Gonzaga and is more athletic than Sabonis.
“We’ll run different schemes offensively and defensively [with different lineups],” Few said. “We can switch screens with Domas and Angel. We run more of a perimeter-oriented, quick-hitting, player movement offense [with Wiltjer]. With Przemek and Domas, we can go hi-lo and play power basketball.”
Gonzaga’s run to the Preseason NIT title last week was the perfect example of this.
On Wednesday night, playing against a Georgia team that had big, physical forwards, Wiltjer had his best game as a collegian, finishing with a career-high 32 points on 14-for-26 shooting. Pangos and Wiltjer have already gotten quite comfortable running side pick-and-roll actions, and the two of them slowly-but-surely eviscerated the Georgia defense.
Sabonis and Karnowski struggled, however, combining to play just 30 minutes before they both fouled out. They absence was evident in the second half, as Wiltjer and Nunez overpowered in the paint, which is what allowed the Bulldogs to stay in the game late.
Friday night’s title game was very different, as St. John’s only has two big men on the roster. Sir’Dominic Pointer, one of the most athletic players in the country, plays the four, which meant that Wiltjer had some trouble getting going offensively. No matter, as Sabonis played one of his best games of the young season, finishing with 14 points, nine boards and a pair of assists while shooting 6-for-6 from the floor as Gonzaga used their size advantage to overwhelm the Johnnies.
That kind of depth and that kind of versatility along the front line is a luxury few programs have. It allows Gonzaga to minimize their disadvantages. When Wiltjer is hot, he is a matchup problem that can score points in flurries and will create space by pulling a big man out to the three-point line. It counteracts whatever he gives up defensively.
But on the nights when he’s not shooting well, Gonzaga has someone to bring in off the bench that can defend and rebound and pretty much do all of those things that Wiltjer can’t.
So while the only point guards that are playing better than Pangos these days are getting paychecks from the NBA, what is going to allow Gonzaga to compete with the best teams in the country is their size and versatility along the front line.
All throughout the preseason, I tried to make it known that Gonzaga was going to be one of the best teams in the country this season, that this Gonzaga roster is the most talented roster that Mark Few has had at his disposal, and that includes the 2006 and 2013 Gonzaga teams.
If you didn’t pay attention, Monday night was your wakeup call.
The No. 13 Zags rolled No. 22 SMU, 72-56, behind 17 points and seven assists from Kevin Pangos. Domantas Sabonis chipped in with 13 points and nine boards while Kyle Wiltjer added 10.
Before I get into praising Gonzaga, let’s make one thing clear: this was not the SMU team we all expected to see this season. Emmanuel Mudiay is in China. Markus Kennedy, the program’s best big man, is sitting this semester as the result of some academic eligibility issues, which accentuated the fact that this was a bad matchup for the Mustangs. They are a team that relied pretty heavily on being able to overpower opponents in the paint, and not only were they going up against one of the best front lines in the country on Monday night, they were doing it on the road without their best big man.
Come January, Gonzaga is not going to be 20 points better than SMU. We can bet on that if you would like.
But back to Gonzaga, all the hype during the preseason centered on two things: that Pangos was finally healthy after battling ankle and toes issues last season, and that Wiltjer was going to be eligible. Throw in Byron Wesley, Sabonis, Josh Perkins and, eventually, Eric McClellan, and the hype was justified.
But here’s the real difference with this group: they are going to bully people in the paint, and they are going to be very, very good defensively.
What got glossed over last season as Gonzaga put together an unremarkable season, by their standards, was that they were No. 15 nationally in defensive efficiency, according to Kenpom. That should continue this season, especially when you consider the pieces they added, and while I’m not completely convinced that a lineup that includes Pangos, Wiltjer and Przemek Karnowski will remain one of the best in the country on that end of the floor, it’s hard to argue with the results. That matchup zone they used at times against SMU looked impenetrable.
The Zags have so many weapons on the offensive end of the floor. This is not a state secret. If they continue to defend the way that they have through the first two games of the season, we are looking at an honest-to-goodness national title contender.