Zags in rare hot pursuit

GONZAGA PREVIEW: After being pushed off WCC throne last season, Zags have made winning conference a priority

Dave.boling@thenewstribune.comNovember 7, 2012 

ost of the story lines look familiar: Gonzaga is talented, versatile, deep and nationally ranked among college men’s basketball teams. But for the first time in more than a decade, the Zags are pursuing a title rather than defending it.

After 11 straight West Coast Conference championships, Gonzaga was dethroned by Saint Mary’s in both the regular season and the WCC tournament last year.

“We remind ourselves of that every day … that we didn’t win the conference,” said guard Kevin Pangos, the Zags’ leading scorer last season. “Winning the conference is probably Goal 1 for us.”

It wasn’t so much that Gonzaga had slipped as it was a case of the WCC strengthening itself around the Zags. Landing three teams in the NCAA tournament (with BYU joining Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s) last spring serves as evidence.

The growing reputation and competitiveness of the conference makes it harder to win on a weekly basis, but helps when it comes tournament time. In recent seasons, the Zags would build their RPI ranking with a strong non-conference schedule, only to watch the ratings drop during WCC play.

It hasn’t been crippling, though, as the Zags have advanced to 14 consecutive NCAA tournaments – a streak of success that is the fourth-longest behind Kansas, Duke and Michigan State.

Gonzaga, ranked No. 21 in The Associated Press poll, was voted the favorite to reclaim the 2012-13 West Coast Conference title, as its only major roster loss was center Robert Sacre, now with the Los Angeles Lakers. The 7-0 Sacre was a physical presence near the basket (11.6 points and 6.3 rebounds a game) but, more important, was the team’s emotional leader.

“Those shoes can’t be filled by one guy,” coach Mark Few said. “It’s a big personality void. Hopefully Kevin gets a little older and Elias (Harris) starts to take a little more ownership here. I think it will be done by committee more than anything.”

Despite starting a pair of freshmen in the backcourt, the Zags managed to go 26-7 last season and make it to the second round of the NCAA tournament before losing to eventual Final Four contestant Ohio State.

But that experience now gives Gonzaga one of the most promising backcourt tandems in the country with Pangos and former Kentridge star Gary Bell Jr.

“They had a heck of a year last year,” Few said. “And they’ve worked really hard on every aspect of their game.”

While Pangos was thrust into the spotlight with an early 33-point game against Washington State, Bell ended up netting 47.7 percent of his 3-point attempts while also being asked to defend the opponent’s best guard every game.

While in a camp for the Canadian senior national team last summer, Pangos spent time getting schooled by two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash.

The biggest new puzzle piece, however, is 19-year-old true freshman Przemek Karnowski, who is 7-1, 305 pounds. Karnowski played for the Polish national team, and was also recruited by Duke and Kansas. In the Zags’ exhibition game against Northwest Nazarene, he scored 17 points in 17 minutes.

“They’re always so hard to find,” Few said of big men with talent. “Any time you get quality big guys, it’s very important in building your program. I think we have a nice foursome in there; they’re all different yet all four of them are very good players.”

Through the early part of camp, Few stressed the importance of physical play, particularly under the basket. An early visit from West Virginia (next Monday), he said, has him recognizing the importance of getting up to speed early with interior defense and rebounding.

The Zags face a typically challenging non-conference schedule, with Illinois and Baylor also coming to Spokane, and Kansas State meeting them in Seattle on Dec. 15. A Jan. 19 game at Butler will be featured on ESPN GameDay.

“We have great depth this year – knock on wood,” Few said. “We have a lot of balance, a lot of guys who can score in a bunch of different ways who are pretty skilled.”

Gonzaga opens the season Friday at 6 p.m. at home versus Southern Utah.

Dave Boling: 253-597-8440 @DaveBoling

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