Zags Rely on a New Core of Players as Practice Begins Tonight

In the race that is the college basketball offseason, we have now finally reached the home stretch.  It has definitely been an offseason to remember.  We started off the summer months with a bang as a few members of our incoming 2009 class made a name for themselves on the international stage.  Recruiting news, which is typically our bread and butter, was remarkably scarce.  The 2010 will reportedly only carry at most one person and although rumors have been rampant about who that player might be, nothing definite has been confirmed.  The story of the summer was obviously Bol Kong and his arrival at Gonzaga.  His story and, in particular, the ending made the summer go much faster and now that we are well into October, it's time to focus on basketball and nothing else. 

When practice starts tonight, Gonzaga will be about two-and-a-half weeks away from their first and only exhibition game against the University of Alberta.  If you have been following the path the 2009 class has traveled to get to Spokane, you'll know that these two weeks will have to be loaded with outstanding coaching to get all the youngsters familiar with the system.  Bol Kong and Elias Harris arrived on campus less than a month ago, and Mangisto Arop and Kelly Olynyk weren't here all summer because of their duties with the Canadian basketball team.  Everyone will be watching these newcomers especially when you consider that their are really only four established returning players. 

To get you ready for the start of official practices, we've compiled a brief primer to get you through the next few weeks as we look forward to the beginning of the season.  Included in this preview will be a brief look at the rankings that are starting to leak out and a detailed look at what should be a very intense two weeks of preseason practice.

Let's take a quick glance at the rankings that are spilling out.  So there are really only three preseason rankings I put much stock in before the AP and Coaches Poll come out.  I know that these preseason rankings are supposedly don't matter to the team but as fans, they do.  Gary Parrish (CBSSports), Jeff Goodman (FoxSports), and Luke Winn (SI) are the best general college basketball writers in the business right now and they have all weighed in on how they view Gonzaga and the rest of the Top 25ish.

  • Jeff Goodman has Gonzaga just outside of his Top 25 in the Twenty more to Watch section.
  • Gary Parrish slated the Zags 25 in his Top 25 (and one).
  • Luke Winn also put Gonzaga 25th in his preseason power rankings.
  • While these rankings are not as glamorous as last year's basically consensus top-10 ranking, it shows the national respect Gonzaga gets now.  When you think about Pargo, Downs, and Heytvelt all graduating and Austin Daye going to the NBA early, it is pretty clear that these national writers are putting plenty of faith in Mark Few's coaching and Matt Bouldin's ability to be a star. 

    Rotation, Rotation, Rotation.  The past few years, Gonzaga has not bee forced to rely on their new players to make an immediate impact.  Sure, some guys like Matt Bouldin, Meech Goodson, and Austin Daye have made immediate impacts but the veterans have always historically been the majority.  This year that isn't the case.  Six brand new players, three walk-ons,and two redshirt freshman make up a sizable piece of the roster.  What this means is that Mark Few will probably spend a lot of nights burning the midnight oil trying to figure out a solid rotation.  We all know that Meech, Matt, and Steven will be roaming the backcourt at the start of games.  Also, Rob Sacre will be the rock in the middle but aside from that, nothing is really set in stone.  We'll get to the battle at power forward in a bit but the rest of the bench should be very interesting to watch.  Backing up Meech will probably be GJ Vilarino.  Behind Steven Gray and Matt Bouldin will probably be guys like Grant Gibbs and Mangisto Arop.  The interior guys will be Rob Sacre, Andy Poling, Elias Harris, and Will Foster.  I'd expect the first three guys to get pretty equal minutes down low with Will's minutes still being a mystery.  That leaves Bol Kong who should be up there on the rotation and I left him out because he can play both the small and power forward at times.  What is my best guess as far as the rotation?  I'd guess the minutes will go something like Bouldin, Meech, Gray, Sacre, Harris, Kong, Poling, Arop, Gibbs, Vilarino.  Obviously, this is a tough thing to call as we are only in mid-October.

    The battle to watch is at power forward.  As I said, the backcourt is all but set in stone.  Meech Goodson will be the director of this offense, Steven Gray might be the most talented player on the team, and Matt Bouldin is by far the most decorated Zag on the roster.  Rob Sacre is the de facto center and it should be his time to shine barring unforeseen injuries.  That leaves one spot up for grabs, and from all indications, it is completely wide open.  The Spokesman-Review's Jim Meehan recently caught up with Leon Rice and this is what he had to say about the two guys vying for the job at "4"

    Elias Harris: "His game has a maturity about it, he doesn't look like a normal freshman. He's a ‘4', maybe a 3. He's got perimeter skills, a savvy about him. He can have the ball in his hands."
    ...
    Andy Poling:
    "He made great physical gains from his freshman to sophomore year, put on a lot of weight and got a lot stronger. He's making steady increases. He's one of those smart players; he can really make things go right and he knows where to be. Something good happens and you look up and hey, Andy's involved."

    It breaks down pretty simply.  Andy seems like a very fundamental, solid player that you know what you'll get game in, game out.  Elias Harris, on the other hand, is a wild card.  He'll have growing pains but he has that potential to explode if he is given enough minutes right off the bat.  He has size and has played against players much older than him on the international stage.  I think it'd be a huge confidence booster if Elias came out and beat out Andy for the job.  Having a freshman in that starting line up who can change the game with the athleticism would be huge for this team coming out of the gates.  Just because Andy doesn't start, it doesn't mean he won't get plenty of minutes and there will be some games where he fits better in the rotation of the game.  In the long run however, I'd love to see Elias get the nod to start the season.

    Final redshirt thoughts before practice starts.  I think I'd elect to redshirt Kelly Olynyk, Sam Dower, and David Stockton this season.  Based on Coach Rice's comments with Meehan, I would say that it seems like that is the way the staff is leaning.  Rice said both guys are still really growing into their bodies at this point and are still in adjustment mode.  I think one of them will still suit up just in case injuries or fouls become an issue but, best-case scenario, I'd expect to see Kelly and Sam both redshirt.  A lot of this will hinge on if Will Foster can provide quality minutes.  Going four deep with Sacre, Poling, Harris, and Foster would be huge.  When you pepper a little bit of Kong in with those four, it is pretty clear that Olynyk and Dower don't HAVE to play this year. 

    Now all we can hope for is that these guys all stay healthy.  Manny Arop has been hampered a bit by a nagging foot injury and Grant Gibbs is struggling with a bad back but so far, so good as they will both be practicing full bore tomorrow.  The Zags have typically suffered a major injury in preseason practice but this is a new team, hopefully they start a new trend.

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