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.