Zags have a lot of new players, but same old goal: NCAA tournament
Gonzaga faces a tough nonconference schedule, as always.
Seattle Times staff reporter
SPOKANE — Austin Daye went off early to the NBA, and suddenly the Gonzaga basketball program had a very youthful look to it. And the braintrust wondered: Was this the year to back off the usually frightful pre-conference schedule?
Then ESPN approached the Zags about an opener with Michigan State, which was willing to return the game in Spokane. Wake Forest popped up, OK with doing a four-year, home-and-home deal. Ditto Illinois. The Maui Invitational was already booked.
Voilà. Thanks to Gonzaga's established national reputation, another wicked nonleague lineup.
So, Zags basketball, 2009-10: Cachet without the credentials?
"Obviously, we want to stay at the level we're at, and win another conference championship and get to the NCAA tournament," says coach Mark Few. "We've got quite a streak going there.
"It's going to be a monumental challenge when you've got this many new guys."
Gonzaga has 11 straight NCAA tournament appearances, and five Sweet 16s in that stretch. The goals, internal and external, aren't a whole lot different, but the roster is.
"There's a lot of new faces on this team," says senior guard Matt Bouldin. "But I think our expectations will be the exact same."
The nonleague schedule includes Michigan State, Wake Forest, Duke, Oklahoma, Illinois and Memphis — plus whatever challenges await in Maui (starting with Colorado). It's entirely possible Gonzaga could get bruised enough in the pre-conference not to compile a worthy NCAA-tournament portfolio and then fall short of a dangerous Portland team in the West Coast Conference.
"It's never a given we're going to be there," says Bouldin, referring to the postseason. "I don't think that changes how we expect to get there."
With Bouldin, whom Few calls "one of the best players in the country," plus Steven Gray and point guard Demetri Goodson, Gonzaga should have one of the better backcourts around.
Around them are some great unknowns. The Zags need a big year from 7-foot sophomore center Robert Sacre, whose foot problems last year prompted a redshirt season.
"It's been a long time since I've played with a 'big' that wants to hang out in the paint and bang with people," says Bouldin. "I mean, he's fearless down there. He's going to hurt some people. He lays a beating on you."
Beyond that, Gonzaga will rely heavily on a six-man recruiting class. The most ready piece appears to be 6-8 German Elias Harris, who has played internationally.
"He understands the game really well and he's super-talented," Bouldin says. "He's beyond athletic, blocks shots, and if he's around the rim, he's going to try to dunk it on you."
A roster dotted with foreign influence also includes two Sudanese natives by way of Canada, 6-5 forward Manny Arop and 6-6 guard Bol Kong; 6-11 Kamloops, B.C., product Kelly Olynyk, 6-9 Minnesotan Sam Dower and 6-foot Texan G.J. Vilarino, who signed with Kentucky on Billy Gillispie's watch but gained a release last spring.
Few calls Arop (pronounced "ROP") a "junkyard dog," a slashing, athletic player who rebounds and defends. Dower is a lefty who can shoot and "kind of reminds you of Sam Perkins." Olynyk, while "not real athletic" in Few's words, is a "skilled 'four' man with a great feel for the game."
Vilarino, much as Goodson did a year ago, could help give Gonzaga the ability to extend defenses. The other stylistic change from recent Zags teams will be an emphasis on feeding Sacre in the post.
So many faces have changed. Bouldin, who averaged 13.6 points with nearly a 2-to-1 assist-turnover ratio, is the only one of the top five scorers returning from last season. That led Bouldin to this eye-catching quote in a September piece by Jeff Goodman of Foxsports.com:
"I think this team is going to be tougher than our other teams," Bouldin said. "Those guys were great guys, but I think we've gotten rid of some of the prima donnas."
Says Bouldin now, "A lot of people took that the wrong way, in the sense I was calling my teammates out. I didn't know a better word at the time to say. I love those guys; they were some of my best friends. They were just more big-name guys."
With their departure, there's one big name left to be protected here: Gonzaga.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.