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Today’s U Top 25 Countdown: No. 11 Gonzaga Bulldogs

Photo: Icon Sportswire

Few teams in college basketball are more polarizing than Gonzaga. There’s no doubting the Bulldogs’ success — the team has made every NCAA Tournament since 1999 — but critics are quick to point out that the Bulldogs rarely make it past the Sweet 16, often bowing out of the tournament during the opening weekend.

Last season, the Bulldogs quieted some of their critics by advancing to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1999, and the first time under head coach Mark Few. This season, they hope to keep the momentum going and make a push for the program’s first Final Four.

Gonzaga boasts arguably the nation’s best frontcourt, led by national player of the year candidate, Kyle Wiltjer.

Wiltjer, a former transfer from Kentucky, exploded onto the West Coast Conference scene last season, averaging 16.8 ppg and 6.2 rpg and earning WCC Newcomer of the Year honors.

Joining Wiltjer in Gonzaga’s talented frontcourt is senior Przemek Karnowski and sophomore Domantas Sabonis, both of whom are more than capable of being first-team All-WCC.

The main question the Bulldogs must answer this season is how they will replace the backcourt production of Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr. and Byron Wesley. The trio graduated last season, leaving Gonzaga with big shoes to fill in the backcourt.

Key Offseason Departures: Kevin Pangos (guard), Gary Bell Jr. (guard), Byron Wesley (guard)

As previously mentioned, replacing the trio of Pangos, Bell and Wesley will be Few’s hardest task this season.

Pangos and Bell were four-year starters who made up the winningest backcourt in program history. Pangos was regarded as one of the best point guards in the country, and was named WCC Player of the Year last season.

Wesley arrived at Gonzaga last season as a graduate transfer from USC. The former Trojan leading scorer immediately stepped into the starting lineup alongside Pangos and Bell, and provided the Bulldogs with additional senior leadership and scoring.

Replacing the trio won’t be easy, but Gonzaga isn’t totally void of options. The player most likely to have a breakout year in the trio’s absence is sophomore Josh Perkins.

Perkins is a former Top 100 recruit who impressed early last season as Pangos’ backup before an injury derailed his season. Now fully healthy, Gonzaga will rely on Perkins to play a major role this season.

Another Bulldog primed for a big season is senior Eric McClellan. McClellan was Vanderbilt’s leading scorer two seasons ago before transferring to Gonzaga and taking on a much smaller role last season. This season, McClellan will take on a larger role, and may prove to be the team’s x-factor with his scoring ability.

Other guards who will be expected to step up this season include senior Kyle Dranginis and sophomore Silas Melson.

Key Additions: Bryan Alberts (guard), Jack Beach (guard), Nigel Williams-Goss (guard, transfer – not eligible until 2016-17), Johnathan Williams (forward, transfer – not eligible until 2016-17), Jeremy Jones (forward, transfer – not eligible until 2016-17), Jesse Wade (guard, won’t arrive on campus until 2017)

With as much talent as Gonzaga returns, the Bulldogs didn’t need to worry much about finding newcomers to contribute this season. Because of that, Gonzaga chose to focus its efforts on planning for the future.

The Bulldogs landed two big-time transfers in Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington), Johnathan Williams (Missouri), and another transfer with potential in Jeremy Jones (Rice), but none of them will be eligible to play until next season.

The Bulldogs also signed highly-ranked high school recruit Jesse Wade. Wade is likely Gonzaga’s point guard of the future, but will serve a two-year LDS mission first and won’t be on campus until 2017.

As far as this season goes, the only newcomer likely to crack the rotation is redshirt freshman Bryan Alberts. Alberts is a very good shooter, and will be relied upon to replace some of the three-point shooting left by the departure of Bell.

Gonzaga also welcomes back two redshirt players — Perkins and Ryan Edwards — from injury who will play important roles this season.

As previously stated, Perkins’ role as facilitator will be vital for Gonzaga’s offense this season. Edwards and his 7’1″, 290 lb. frame will provide the Bulldogs with an extra big to spell Karnowski when he needs a break.

Gonzaga’s lone true freshman, Jack Beach, rounds out the list of newcomers.

Schedule Analysis

Gonzaga faces a tough early-season slate and will have plenty of opportunities for quality nonconference wins this season.

The Bulldogs start their season with a warmup game against Eastern Oregon before traveling to Japan to take on Pittsburgh in what should be a winnable contest.

From there, Gonzaga returns stateside for a couple of games before traveling to the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament. The Tournament boasts an impressive field consisting of Syracuse, UConn, Texas, Michigan, Washington, Texas A&M and Charlotte, and will give the Bulldogs its best chance for resume-building early-season wins.

After returning home from the Bahamas, Gonzaga welcomes UCLA, Arizona and Tennessee to round out its nonconference slate. Arizona provides the Bulldogs a chance for a signature win, while UCLA and Tennessee would be considered quality wins as well.

In conference play, Gonzaga will be challenged by BYU, Saint Mary’s and Pepperdine. The Bulldogs are considered big favorites to win the conference this season, but must remain focused on a nightly basis. If they do that, they should be able to take care of business and earn another WCC title.

Preview and Prediction

Undoubtedly, Gonzaga’s strength this season will be its frontcourt. And its biggest question mark will be its inexperienced backcourt.

The team’s success will be determined by how it balances the two.

Early seasons tests may prove to be hiccups for the Bulldogs, but by the time conference play rolls around the team should hit its full stride.

In the end, it will be a disappointment if the Bulldogs don’t win a conference title and win at least a couple of NCAA Tournament games. A Final Four appearance is the ultimately goal, but the most likely scenario is another Sweet 16 appearance.

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