Gonzaga Basketball: Why the Bulldogs Can Be a Surprise Contender in 2014

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Gonzaga Basketball: Why the Bulldogs Can Be a Surprise Contender in 2014
Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

Gonzaga won't be mentioned in preseason national championship talk.

Not with Kentucky, which added three top recruits to an already stacked roster. Not with Duke, which ushered in Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones to an already potent lineup. And not with Arizona, which replaced Nick Johnson with Stanley Johnson.

Don't sleep on Gonzaga, though. Even if there are a bunch of teams favored ahead of the Bulldogs, who are listed at 25-1, according to OddShark (via Bovada).

The Bulldogs had their best season when they had their most complete roster. That was 2012-13, of course, when Mark Few's bunch earned a No. 1 seed with the inside-outside punch of Kelly Olynyk/Elias Harris and Kevin Pangos/Gary Bell Jr. leading the charge.

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Elias Harris, left, and Kelly Olynyk, right, anchored Gonzaga's frontcourt in 2012-13. The Bulldogs weren't as efficient without them in 2013-14.

Fortunately for Few, this year's roster resembles the 2012-13 squad more than the 2013-14 team.

Even with Pangos and Bell back in Spokane last year, Gonzaga wasn't as potent offensively. Sam Dower's production spiked, but that wasn't enough.

The Bulldogs still reached the NCAA tournament—barely, as a No. 8 seed—thanks to a leap in defensive efficiency (subscription required) and a late-season winning streak. The offensive efficiency, however—such a key factor to the 2012-13 squad's success—plummeted.

The 2012-13 Bulldogs ranked No. 2 in KenPom's offensive efficiency ratings. The 2013-14 team ranked No. 51.

Dower's no longer on the roster, joining Olynyk and Harris as alumni of Gonzaga's frontcourt.

But the 7'1" Przemek Karnowski is still around, and Few added Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer a year ago. The 6'10" forward is eligible this year.

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Kyle Wiltjer averaged 10.2 points per game for Kentucky in 2012-13. He will be a key player for Gonzaga this year.

While Olynyk was a national player of the year candidate two years ago, Wiltjer and Karnowski won't rise to that level. They'll be good, but not that good.

Instead, Gonzaga's best strength is in the backcourt, where USC transfer Byron Wesley and ESPN Top 100 recruit Josh Perkins will join Pangos and Bell.

Pangos and Bell have thrived in Gonzaga's system for three years. In 2013-14, they each shot better than 40 percent from three-point territory and posted solid offensive ratings—Bell's at 120.7, Pangos' at 118.2.

Bell is a pure 2-guard, and while Pangos is better off the ball, he is a capable floor general. Perkins will be able to spell him at the 1.

Wesley, though, is the real catch of the offseason. He adds a third punch to an already potent backcourt as a proven scorer in the Pacific-12.

In 2013-14, the 6'5" guard averaged 17.8 points for USC. He took 82.6 percent of his shots inside the arc, according to Hoop-Math.com—43.5 percent at the rim and 39.1 percent on jumpers. 

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Byron Wesley led USC with 17.8 points per game last year. He transferred to Gonzaga in the offseason, and is immediately eligible.

He adds an attacking element to the backcourt, while Pangos and Bell inflict most of their damage from deep.

Gonzaga's backcourt isn't good just by West Coast Conference standards. It's good enough to compete with almost any set of guards in the country.

But Wiltjer will be the key to Gonzaga's success.

Can he stretch the floor like Olynyk did two years ago? Can he crash the glass with more ferocity than he did at Kentucky? Can he defend?

Olynyk took 64.2 percent of his shots at the rim in 2012-13. He also attempted 26.6 percent of his field-goal attempts on two-point jumpers, which he converted 53.8 percent of the time.

That efficiency from the mid-range made Olynyk a matchup problem. It also opened up the court and afforded Gonzaga an added threat on the pick-and-roll.

Just watch his Gonzaga highlights.

Wiltjer was more of a three-point shooter at Kentucky. He launched 54 percent of his shots from deep, compared to 27.3 percent on two-point jumpers. 

He also wasn't nearly as efficient as Olynyk on two-point jumpers at 39.5 percent, and he didn't put the ball on the floor as effectively.

Nonetheless, Wiltjer will stretch the floor as the starting power forward with range beyond the arc.

With the loss of Dower, the Bulldogs will rely on Wiltjer to grab more than the 4.2 rebounds per game he snared at Kentucky. But Wesley is a solid rebounder for his position (6.4 RPG in 2013-14), so he will help fill Dower's void.

Even if Wiltjer's defense isn't up to par, the Bulldogs have several good defenders in Bell, Perkins, Karnowski and Kyle Dranginis.

The team's depth is solid with Perkins, Dranginis, Angel Nunez, Domantas Sabonis and Silas Melson coming off the bench.

Unlike last year when he routinely played eight guys, Few will likely use a rotation of 10 or 11 players in 2014-15—as he did in 2012-13.

Critics will point to Gonzaga's early exit from the 2013 NCAA tournament and remind you Few hasn't taken a team past the Sweet 16. They'll say those Bulldogs dominated inferior competition in the regular season and won the games they needed to controversially earn a No. 1 seed. 

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But don't forget who bounced Gonzaga from the tournament: Wichita State, which reached the Final Four. Also don't forget those Bulldogs were younger than this year's team.

Harris and Dower—forwards—were the two key upperclassmen on that squad with significant experience.

Experience is critical—especially in the backcourt—and the Bulldogs are equipped to handle pressure, rough patches, you name it.

Pangos and Bell have three years as running mates. Wesley thrived as the primary defensive assignment on a Pac-12 team. Wiltjer battled intense pressure at Kentucky and was a bright spot on John Calipari's worst team in Lexington.

The Bulldogs have the pieces to contend for a title.

Even if they're not the popular pick.

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