Gonzaga lost two players from last season’s team to the NBA, but the No. 14 Bulldogs have reloaded and are favored to win another West Coast Conference title.
Domantas Sabonis left school early to become a lottery pick for Oklahoma City, and leading scorer Kyle Wiltjer graduated and is playing for the Houston Rockets. The All-America selections take 37 points and 18 rebounds a game out of the Bulldogs lineup.
Only two starters, Przemek Karnowski and Josh Perkins, are back from a team that finished 28-8 and lost in the Sweet 16. The Zags begin play Friday with a home game against Utah Valley (6 p.m., ROOT Sports).
Karnowski, who missed most of last season with a back injury, is a 7-foot-1 center who averaged 10 points and six rebounds two seasons ago. Perkins, a guard, averaged 10 points and four assists last season.
“We have depth at pretty much every spot,” coach Mark Few said. “We’re really balanced; the guys are kind of equal ability across the board. I don’t know if any one guy is going to play 35 minutes every night and we can’t live without him. That hasn’t been the case in many of the years prior.”
Gonzaga has made 17 consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament, but never advanced beyond the Elite Eight. This team is a good bet to make it 18 straight trips.
Much of the optimism centers on a trio of transfers.
Guard Nigel Williams-Goss becomes eligible after transferring from Washington, where he averaged 15 points and five assists. Guard Jordan Mathews is a graduate transfer from California, where he averaged 13.5 points. Forward Johnathan Williams is a transfer from Missouri, where he averaged 11.9 points and seven rebounds.
Returning from last season are Silas Melson and Ryan Edwards. Four freshmen are on the roster, as is transfer Jeremy Jones from Rice.
Few said his challenge “is getting the transfers dialed into the Zag way and getting the new guys (to do the same), and figuring out what we can do with the old guys.”
Karnowski is pleased to be back on the court after playing only a handful of games last season.
“I think (last season) was a huge life lesson for me, for the appreciation of things that you have every day,” said Karnowski, who had back surgery on Dec. 31. “It was hard to do any daily activities when I was injured.”
“To get to where we are right now it’s just a great story and a testament to him,” Few said of Karnowski. “You just wish for nothing but the best. You want a happy ending.”
Things to watch:
▪ Few has a record of 466-111 in his 17 seasons at Gonzaga’s helm and never failed to get to the NCAA Tournament. His winning percentage of .808 is the highest of any active Division I coach.
▪ Gonzaga’s nonconference schedule is not as brutal as in some seasons. The Bulldogs play San Diego State, No. 10 Arizona, Washington, Tennessee and either Florida or Seton Hall in the early going.
▪ Mathews is one of 20 candidates for the Jerry West Shooting Guard of the Year Award. Williams-Goss is one of 20 candidates for the 2017 Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year Award. Both honors are presented by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
▪ Gonzaga once again topped the West Coast Conference preseason poll. For the 16th straight time, conference coaches picked the Zags to win the regular-season title. No. 17 Saint Mary’s, which returns every key player from last season’s co-championship squad, was picked second. Gonzaga has won or shared 15 of the last 16 WCC regular-season titles.
▪ Known as “Shimmick,” Karnowski is the 39th player in program history to top 1,000 career points and is nine rebounds shy of becoming the 14th player with at least 600 career rebounds. Only eight Gonzaga players have done both.