Call me a cynic—better yet, call me the cynic on the Gonzaga campus.
Now entering my fifth year as a student at the Spokane-based school of hoops, I've seen everything from the incoming freshman calling this year the year to the outgoing senior saying likewise. The four other teams I've witnessed have had their share of problems, which might be changed this year.
Even when there are plenty of talented players between the sixth and12th men, Few has always been reluctant to use them all, going with (usually) a max of three men off the bench. Of late, however, he's opened up, and he must this year as the ride to New Year's Day is riddled with road trips and hard matchups. If Few opens up opportunities, great things can and will happen.
Never short on them, the underperforming teams of late have mastered coughing it up. Pargo's dribble-drive tendencies aren't going to end this, but it is up to the rest of the rotation to be more patient ball-handlers.
The teams of the past, probably best exampled under the Turiaf years, were ones that won the rebounding margin a majority of the time, especially in conference games. As the competition in the WCC has grown, so has the dominance over the boards.
If this year's crop of big men doesn't provide an advantage here, you can expect around a .500 record outside of the conference and some unaccustomed conference losses. The fact that this seems to have all been placed in the hands of F Ira Brown, a glorified SF, is horrifying.
You can tie it to the rebounding margin, but the problems of getting Raivio warm in his waning years and Daye's struggles last year were high-volume misses. Early in crucial games, Few can't have his guys trying to perfect the stroke while seemingly abandoning the interior offense.
You know Stephen Gray will be on target early, so getting him as the primary option from behind the arc is a critical process for the Zags' modified Flex attack.
No one can presume that all of these issues will be stamped out, but so long as Few works on them towards March, Gonzaga will be in fine shape for the tournament. However, five games loom as keys to the evolution of the Zags' '08-'09 season, one filled with Final Four aspirations (not mine, necessarily).
Game No. 1: @ Washington State, 10 December
For several years now, the Bennett legacy of defensive prowess has shut down Gonzaga like nothing else I have seen, holding the Zags to under 60 points in their last four meetings. Despite an opponent gutted by graduations, the Cougars shouldn't be looked down upon, as the defense will remain.
Whether a more vibrant interior game by Gonzaga will manifest is another thing entirely, but it is a key to fleeing this putrid little hellhole with a W.
Game No. 2: vs. Connecticut (Key Arena, Seattle, WA), 20 December
Simply combine "steadily improving" and "7'4" center" in the same sentence, and you've already got me under my desk suffering from the PTSD. Hasheem Thabeet isn't scary good...yet. However, I'm worried already.
Can Ira Brown, Jake Foster, and Robert Sacre stop him without Jeff Adrien and A.J. Brown murdering us from everywhere else on the court? I'm not hopeful, but I'd bet it's closer than Vegas thinks either way.
Game No. 3: @ Tennessee, 7 January
Despite seeing some well-deserved rest after the long run-up to New Year's, a week later the Zags have to face the evil Hunter Orange-suited genius Bruce Pearl in one more out-of-conference machismo matchup.
Sure, Chris Lofton and four others are gone. Sure, Bruce Pearl sees a team needing improvement after its exhibition games and a few injuries. However, they're still picked to win the SEC East, have Wayne Chism and Tyler Smith back, and even if the injuries aren't settled, the Zags won't look good falling to a pick to win the conference's East Division, let alone an underperforming Vols team.
Games No. 4 & 5: vs. St. Mary's, 29 January; @ St. Mary's, 12 February
If one can whittle down the impact players touted in the WCC to give the Zags a run for the conference, they have often been seniors with less than two-and-a-half years of experience in the starting lineup facing down the conference's perennial favorite. Guys like Travis Nielsen and the ilk are fifth-year guys who have simply been around as opposed to been good for a while.
What impressed me about Randy Bennett has been his penchant for pushing his young talent, like Diamon Simpson, Omar Samhan, and Patrick Mills, and let them struggle but then eventually thrive (well, Mills never really struggled much, to be fair).
Now he can reap even more as Simpson runs the court as a four-year starter, with Samhan as their bulky, fiery post presence and Mills as the difficult-to-cover threat from everywhere.
This team is so good a split of the two games would be good for the Zags holding on to the regular season crown, but the Gaels are talented enough to sweep the series. Get your heart medication on standby for these games, as it is safe to say these ones will be simply awesome.