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Originally published March 29, 2014 at 4:41 PM | Page modified March 29, 2014 at 5:26 PM

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Gonzaga has opportunity to improve next season

Zags return some strong big men and solid guards


Seattle Times college basketball reporter

By the numbers

403-100

Gonzaga’s record under coach Mark Few

26.9

Average number of victories per season under Few

16

Consecutive NCAA tournament appearances

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It’s a week now since Gonzaga went off the rails against Arizona. All things considered, the Zags could have saved themselves a lot of grief, and ridicule, by simply bowing quietly out of the NCAA tournament against Oklahoma State.

Or even more surreptitiously, they could have just failed to make the tournament altogether. It would have been duly noted, and then the hurly-burly of the brackets would have overwhelmed the subject.

But no. They were there again on Selection Sunday and ambushed Oklahoma State, thereby exposing vulnerabilities for all to see against Arizona.

It figured. Gonzaga didn’t do much of anything easily this year, from a stream of player injuries to a late-season lurch that imperiled its streak of 16 consecutive tournament appearances.

Fact is, even allowing for the ugliness of the Arizona defeat, Gonzaga took it about as far this season as could reasonably be expected. Yeah, GU makes the tournament every year. Ubiquity doesn’t mean you’re set up to do appreciable damage.

Last spring, coming off their second-game NCAA splat against Wichita State, the Zags lost Kelly Olynyk to the NBA lottery, No. 2 career rebounder Elias Harris and glue-guy extraordinaire Mike Hart.

They dabbled in free agency — the annual spring swap market of graduated collegians bleeding out their careers elsewhere — and fell short. They were either going to have to play small a lot, or pray for growth and stability from two new starters up front, Przemek Karnowski and Sam Dower Jr.

Mostly, they got that, but the margin for error was as thin as Steve Masiello’s Kentucky resume. They cut back some on the schedule, won 29 games, turned the lights out on Oklahoma State’s season and then got undressed by Arizona.

Some saw the finale as the ultimate resolution on what the WCC kingpin would do regularly if it were in the Pac-12. Well, maybe. I suppose by that logic, California’s victory over Arizona lent magnificence to the NIT field.

This might be the better yardstick: Gonzaga and Colorado were both No. 8 seeds in the tournament. Arizona beat Colorado, 63-43, in the Pac-12 tournament. Then it beat Gonzaga by 23.

“This game doesn’t define us,” Gonzaga guard Gary Bell Jr. said defiantly afterward.

All Gonzaga can do is get up, take another swing at it next year, and try to slay its NCAA second-game albatross.

It could be well-equipped. Karnowski, at center, improved dramatically and the only hedge seems to be whether he leaves for somebody’s pro league.

“So far, so good; I’m loving it,” he said the day before the Arizona defeat. “We’ll see how it goes this year. I think I’ll for sure stay for my junior year.”

The most prominent addition will be 6-foot-10 Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer. He shot 43 percent on threes for the national champions two years ago, then averaged 10.2 points and 4.2 rebounds for the Wildcats’ NIT team in 2013.

“Nobody has seen him, they’ve only seen him at Kentucky,” said Bell. “I feel he’s gotten way better this year.”

The perimeter should be well-manned by Kevin Pangos, Bell and Kyle Dranginis, joined by four-star rookie Josh Perkins and Silas Melson of Portland, who was named Oregon player of the year in leading Jefferson of Portland to a second consecutive 5A title.

It would help if athletic holdover forward Angel Nunez could adapt to the system. Gerard Coleman didn’t, and the guess here is he’ll be outbound to find another place to play.

They’ll be good, again, presumably better than this year. Late-March good? That’s the question.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com



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