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Will Gonzaga’s Backcourt Prove to Be Its Achilles’ Heel?

As the 2015-16 season nears, Gonzaga’s frontcourt is one of college basketball’s biggest stories.

The trio of Kyle Wiltjer, Domantas Sabonis and Przemek Karnowski has been featured in just about every preseason watchlist imaginable. Just this past week, CBS Sports named Wiltjer its preseason player of the year (hey, so did I), while Sports Illustrated recognized Sabonis and Karnowski as two of the top big men in the nation.

There’s no doubt that Gonzaga’s frontcourt will be its strength this season, but being overlooked is the fact that Gonzaga lost three starting guards from last year’s Elite Eight squad — Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr. and Byron Wesley — who will be very hard to replace.

With Pangos, Bell and Wesley gone, the Bulldogs will be forced to rely on younger guards to play major roles this season — namely Josh Perkins and Silas Melson. The Bulldogs will also need seniors Kyle Dranginis and Eric McClellan to step up and become leaders in the backcourt.

March 27. 2015: Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Eric McClellan (21) during the NCAA Men's Div 1 Men's Championship - Sweet Sixteen  - UCLA Bruins vs Gonzaga Bulldogs at NRG Stadium in Houston, TX.

March 27. 2015: Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Eric McClellan (21) during the NCAA Men’s Div 1 Men’s Championship – Sweet Sixteen – UCLA Bruins vs Gonzaga Bulldogs at NRG Stadium in Houston, TX.

Last year, Perkins arrived at Gonzaga as a Top 100 recruit, and showed a lot of potential as the backup point guard during the early season. In five games, he averaged 5.0 points and 3.4 assists in 20.2 minutes per game, while also shooting 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from deep.

However, Perkins broke his jaw in late November, which forced him to miss the remainder of the season. In his absence, fellow freshman Melson stepped into his role and showed some potential of his own.

Melson’s numbers may have looked pedestrian on paper — 3.2 ppg, 0.3 apg — but he gained valuable experience last season backing up Pangos and Bell. With his athleticism and high motor, Melson has the potential to make an impact for the Bulldogs this season on both ends of the floor.

For the Bulldogs to be successful this season, Perkins and Melson must do a good job of facilitating the offense. Gonzaga’s talented frontcourt will be the offense’s focal point, but Perkins and Melson must be able to get Gonzaga’s big men the ball in the right position to score.

That’s a lot of pressure for two young, relatively inexperienced guards. Luckily the Bulldogs will have the experience of Dranginis and McClellan to help steady their young backcourt teammates.

Dranginis has been a soldier for coach Mark Few the past three seasons, and has a firm understanding of Few’s offensive and defensive schemes. This season will be his time to shine, as he will play more minutes than ever before.

The offense has always seemed to run better with Dranginis on the floor, so expect Few to play him a lot of minutes at small forward this season to help bridge the gap between the young backcourt and experienced frontcourt.

And then there’s McClellan. Like Dranginis, McClellan is poised for a big year during his senior season.

Two years ago, McClellan averaged 14.2 ppg at Vanderbilt. After accepting a small, supporting role last season, McClellan will take on a much larger role this season with Pangos and Bell gone. If McClellan can find some semblance of the player he was at Vanderbilt, he could be the Bulldogs’ X-factor this season.

Will Gonzaga’s backcourt be up to the challenge of running a Top 25 squad?

With early-season matchups against Pittsburgh, Arizona and UCLA, Gonzaga can’t afford any mishaps. However, as long as Perkins and Melson take care of the ball and get it to Gonzaga’s big men, the Bulldogs should be okay.

They’ll be growing pains with Perkins and Melson, but the duo has the potential to be very good. In the meantime, Few will rely on Dranginis and McClellan to mentor his young guards and help them along the way.

Few thinks that his backcourt is up for the challenge. In a few months, he will find out if he is right.

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