Personal Note: I'd like to apologize to all our readers for the lack of consistent coverage over the past several weeks. Without going through all the recent events, suffice it to say this has been the craziest six months of my life. Things are settling down at the perfect time and I can promise you all that we will pick up right where we left off a few months ago. Go Zags!
Excitement is common in all sports when a new season begins. Every team has hope, no matter what happened in the previous season. For fans of Gonzaga basketball, a huge part of the excitement has to do with seeing who the 'next man up' will be. From Adam Morrison to Derek Raivio to Jeremy Pargo to Matt Bouldin to Elias Harris and most recently to Kelly Olynyk, Mark Few has always been able to reload. In 2013-14, he may need it more than ever as he is losing not one, not two, but three truly outstanding Zags, two of which are now in the NBA.
As we look towards this season, there are a lot of intriguing storylines. The most prevalent of those storylines is "Who in the #$@! is going to replace the scoring and general presence of Kelly Olynyk, Elias Haris, and Mike Hart". Those three were truly the cornerstone of one of the best Gonzaga basketball teams in history and they will not be walking out of the tunnel come Saturday. What is REALLY freaky about that is the fact that Gonzaga is still thought of as a consensus top-20 team and the top team in the WCC. Now, you can argue that those accolades are primarily due to the fact that this NCAA season is expected to be very top-heavy and that the WCC, in general, is not very good. Those are both valid points but it is important to remember a couple things that get me really excited about this season...
If the backcourt can achieve consistency, it can truly be elite
Rather that view this season as "who replaces those guys", I would prefer to view it more as a transition process. The entire offseason has been guard dominated in many facets. Everyone is under the very good assumption that if Gonzaga is going to be outstanding this season, their guards will have to step up in a big way. Everyone knows that Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell are a formidable backcourt combo but they have the opportunity to do something that they haven't done quite yet: be elite. Gonzaga fans know that the duo has the potential to be top-5 in the country. It comes down to consistency, staying healthy, and being the dominant force that Kelly and Elias were last year. What is even more exciting for those two is that they finally appear to have someone at the small forward position that can fill it up so they don't have to feel the pressure to put up 20 points every night. Gerard Coleman is without a doubt the X-factor on this roster. He's a pure scorer and a superb fit in Mark Few's system. Like, Pangos and Bell, Coleman's biggest test will be whether or not he can avoid being labeled as a 'streaky player' because the Zags need him to be a solid presence every night.
This team can overachieve
I never enjoying using tired cliches but Gonzaga has obviously had an issue over the years "getting over the hump". Last year was a banner season for this team. Finishing the season #1 in the polls before bowing up in the round of 32 was incredible but it still left a bitter taste in our mouths because of how the tournament played out. If you remember the start of last season, you know that expectations were not massively high for the Zags. It was a good team featuring a good backcourt and Elias Harris but the team overachieved because of Kelly Olynyk. As we look toward this season, they can once again overachieve should one (or both, preferably) of their frontcourt players steps out and maximizes their talent. Both Sam Dower and Przemek Karnowski have shown flashes, there is no doubt about that. I continue to think about Sam Dower's performance against Butler and wonder why he can't do that every night. He's a versatile big man that can score in a hundred different ways but if he continues to be a liability defensively, he won't be able to get those consistent minutes he desires so much. For Karnowski, they key will be the work he has done in the offseason. As a freshman last year, it became abundantly clear that he wasn't quite ready to play at the pace of Mark Few and that he needed time to thin down and get himself into better shape. As a sophomore, he will be relied on to continue to show his incredible offensive skill set but also be a consistent force on the defensive end and on the glass.
The supporting cast is still relatively unknown but appears promising
In my estimation, the folks I mentioned above are the core of this team. The supporting cast will likely feature Kyle Dranginis, Angel Nunez (in a month-ish), David Stockton, Drew Barham, and Ryan Edwards. Aside from Stockton, all these guys are still 'potential' type players. Dranginis is the best example of this. Zag fans can see the skill he has but it simply hasn't clicked yet against a solid opponent. For this team to be successful, he really needs to be a solid first guard off the bench to spell Bell & Coleman. For Drew Barham, I call him a 'potential' guy not because I think his game is going to take massive leaps but because I think he'll be asked to fill in and help at the power forward spot at some points in addition to his usual role at the small forward. The Zags are insanely thin in the post so whatever help he can provide there is going to be huge. Angel Nunez and Ryan Edwards are complete wild cards. Nunez is a superb athlete while Edwards is a hulking center in the mold of Karnowski. My gut tells me that Nunez is going to have an impact once he is eligible in the winter and I think Edwards will simply be called upon to eat up minutes while Karno and Dower rest. Any type of contribution on the score sheet from Edwards will be upside.
It is hard not be excited as I said above. You just get the sense that someone on this roster is going to make a big jump and really put this team on his back. For the success of the team in March, I hope with everything I have that it is a group of guys and not just one but that remains to be seen. Either way, Saturday can not get here soon enough!