Kevin Pangos is the big name, but Gonzaga’s biggest strength are their biggest men

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Kyle Wiltjer (Getty Images)

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.

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Domantas Sabonis (AP Photo)

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.

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.