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FanHouse Top 30: No. 15 Gonzaga

Nov 4, 2010 – 3:20 PM
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No. 15 Gonzaga (27-7, 12-2 in the WCC)

In: G Keegan Hyland (Fr.), G Marquise Carter (Jr., transfer), C Sam Dower (RS Fr.), G Mathis Kieta, F Matthis Monninghoff, G David Stockton (RS Fr.)
Out: G Matt Bouldin, C Will Foster

At Gonzaga, the question is always some form of Gus Johnson's memorable V-8 roar from the team's 1999 Elite Eight run: Does the slipper still fit?

The answer is no.

Not unless Cinderella had feet the size of Shaq.

In the dozen years since the Zags became the brand-name for NCAA tournament Cinderellas, the small school from Spokane has done a lot of growing up. Now, the Bulldogs are mid-major only in the sense that no football team from their conference will ever win the BCS national championship (Which only begs the question why Duke and North Carolina aren't called mid-majors in the football-challenged ACC).

Since 1999, the Zags have accomplished quite a few big-boy feats. They've made the NCAA tournament a dozen straight years (trailing only Kansas, Duke and Michigan State), made the Sweet 16 five times, and last year they managed a typically high-major feat, replacing all but one member of their starting lineup, including league player of the year Jeremy Pargo, and finishing no worse for the wear.

The same couldn't be said for their opponents. Gonzaga went 27-7, won the WCC regular season and knocked off a major conference team in the first-round of the NCAA tournament.

Stop us when any of this sounds familiar.

Gonzaga enters 2011 with a much more settled lineup and expectations that have grown with the program's stature. Unlike a November ago, the Bulldogs only have to replace one key piece of last year's team. Then again, calling point guard Matt Bouldin one piece of last year's team is like calling an engine just one part in a car.

Bouldin won West Coast Conference player of the year honors last year and served as the central spoke of the Bulldogs' offense. Point guard transitions can be difficult (ask either North Carolina or UCLA last year) and Bouldin's replacement, Demetri Goodson will be more harshly scrutinized than anything in Washington this side of Microsoft stock.

The junior point guard is a fine ballhandler and difficult to stop in the open court (ask Western Kentucky, whom he beat on a coast-to-coast drive in the second round of the 2009 tournament.) Goodson frequently carried the ball up the court to beat pressure last season, but as soon as he crossed halfcourt, the offense was placed in Boldin's hands. Goodson can penetrate, but is a poor outside shooter and seems to struggle with decision making once he's in the lane, knowing when to pass, or when to shoot. (Hence, the too-high 22 percent turnover rate).

If Goodson can't cut it, junior college transfer Marquise Carter will likely step in. Carter is more of a scoring type of lead guard than a classic distributor, and, at 6-foot-4, could form a very big starting lineup for the Bulldogs.
Either way, senior Steven Gray will play the opposite guard. Gray seems exactly like the sort of player the Bulldogs must pull off a shelf in the equipment room. unassuming but skilled, and complete with quirky haircut. Gray averaged 13.6 points per game a season ago, is a better 3-point shooter than his pedestrian 32.9 mark last year and should emerge as the star on the perimeter, without Bouldin around using as many possessions.

But the strength of the Bulldogs' will be the frontcourt, another hulking sign that Gonzaga isn't quite what you'd call a mid-major anymore.

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Forward Elias Harris is the league's best player and Gonzaga's most talented player since Adam Morrison. The little-known German broke out in a big way as a freshman last year, averaging 14.9 points per game and winning league newcomer of the year honors. The Bulldogs might, and perhaps should, play him at the small forward because of his developing inside-outside game. Harris needs to learn to pass the ball more and force his own shot less (He had a 7.9 percent assist rate, which hardly reflects his ability to create space for others). Power forward Kelly Olynyk and center Robert Sacre are both seven-footers (and Canadian, which is surely some sort of twin tower first). If they play together, the duo gives the Zags one of the biggest frontlines in the nation, let alone the WCC. Olynyk needs to make a leap from his freshman season, but Sacre is already a proven scorer, so the Canadian National Towers should be able to run roughshod over an Omar Samhan-less WCC.

Forward Mangisto Arop, whose season ended a year ago with a broken foot in the WCC tournament, may slide into the starting lineup at the three and be a valuable slasher in the Bulldogs' offense in addition to a tenacious defender.

As always, the Bulldogs will have a good sense of where they stand by Christmas with a punishing non-conference schedule that looks like something from right from Santa's naughty list. Gonzaga plays San Diego State at home, Kansas State in the CBE Classic (and likely Duke if they win), Illinois in Seattle, Notre Dame in South Bend, Washington State in Pullman and Xavier at home, all before haging stockings.

But as always with Gonzaga, it's never how the team performs in November and December, it's whether the super-sized slipper still fits come March.

Most Important Player: Goodson, and it's not close. Harris is the team's best player, but if Goodson can't get the offense going, it'll be a long farewell season for Harris.

Best-Case Scenario: Gray and Harris become two of the nation's best players, while Arop builds on a strong close to his freshman year and Olynyk, who played with Team Canada this summer, lives up to his summer billing. If it all comes together, the Zags could make an overdue Final Four run at last.

Worst-Case Scenario: The offense falters under Goodson, the team struggles on the offensive glass and its defense remains more so-so than suffocating. Early struggles against a brutal non-conference schedule force the Bulldogs to win the WCC tournament to make the NCAA tournament, but even in a worst-case scenario, it's hard to imagine Gonzaga not making a 13th straight NCAA tournament appearance.

FanHouse Prediction:
There's no player in the Pacific time zone more scrutinized than Goodson, but decision making is often a product of coaching, and there's probably no better coach in the Pacific time zone than Mark Few. The strength of the frontcourt and at shooting guard should make it easy for Goodson to drive-and-dish. Expect Gonzaga to win the WCC again and roll into the NCAA tournament as a 3-5 seed.
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