If you want to find a Gonzaga player still stewing over the events of March 23, when Wichita State abruptly ended the top-ranked, top-seeded Zags' unprecedented season in the NCAA tournament's Round of 32, you'll have to look beyond fifth-year center Sam Dower. "We didn't have the happy ending we worked so hard for, but I feel like we gave it our all," says the perpetually positive 6-foot-9 lefty from Minneapolis.
Dower, an organizational leadership grad student who is known for his infectious laugh, dulcet singing voice and encyclopedic knowledge of rap and R&B lyrics, will be a star attraction in this year's lineup. After averaging 6.9 points and 2.7 rebounds in 16.0 minutes behind current NBA rookie forwards Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris (who combined for 32.4 points and 14.7 rebounds), Dower is applying what he learned from watching Olynyk develop into a lottery pick after being a benchwarmer. "Every day Kelly worked harder than everybody else," says Dower, who spent the summer developing more moves with his right hand. He also suffered through many grueling afternoons running Perry Hill, a steep quarter-mile incline near campus, to help him get into top condition. Now Dower has "the most confidence I've had in my four years here," he says.
Still, the Zags' strength will be their backcourt. Juniors Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. and grad student David Stockton may be small -- the 6-2 Pangos is the tallest of that trio -- but all can dish and hit from long range, which will be critical if the Zags are to win their 13th West Coast Conference title in 14 years. "Without much frontcourt depth, we'll have to play differently this year," says coach Mark Few. "I think we'll shoot more threes than we have in the past. But shooting will be a strength. Like we do every year, we'll adjust to what we have."
While the Maui Invitational (Nov. 25-27) could match Gonzaga with Syracuse, Cal or Baylor, the Zags won't have the usual murderers' row of non-conference heavyweights to face before WCC play begins. The only preseason top 25 team inked into their schedule is Memphis, which hosts them for the Feb. 8 ESPN College Game Day. With that light load and WCC rival St. Mary's in rebuilding mode, the Zags might pile up enough wins to threaten last year's record of 32.
Often overlooked in the post-mortems of Gonzaga's season-ending loss to Wichita State was the role then sophomore guard Gary Bell, Jr., didn't play in that game. The team's best on-ball defender and top three-point shooter sat on the bench with a stress fracture in his right ankle for most of the second half, unable to help his team fend off a torrent of Shocker threes in the last six minutes. It was a tough ending for a player who had struggled to match some of the sparkling stats (.496 FG%; .477 3P%) of his All-WCC Freshman year. "Gary was kind of laboring in the last few months of last season," says Few.
After taking the offseason to heal his foot and clean up a lingering knee problem, Bell was cleared to play in September. "For development that wasn't great, but he looks as good as he has ever looked," says Few. "He bounces around, he's back to having some pop, being able to move quick and jump quick. He looks very good, and that's good for us."
Telling Number: 15
Gonzaga's consecutive NCAA appearances. Only Kansas (24), Duke (18), and Michigan State (16) have longer streaks.
Q&A with Gonzaga Head Coach Mark Few
SI.com: What are your concerns about this team?
Mark Few: We're not as deep as we've been, especially up front. We went from having a plethora of bigs just a few years ago to being really thin there. We'll miss the intangibles of (walkon-turned starter) Mike Hart. Getting those hard baskets that Kelly and Elias got. Those two kids were great rebounders, and their numbers will be tough to replace.
SI.com: There's a lot of talk about what you lost from last season, including two NBA players, but what have you gained going into this season?
MF: Our guards (Gary Bell, Jr., Kevin Pangos, David Stockton) have done nothing but garner more and more experience. They've been in so many big moments and they've hit so many shots, and they've made so many big plays. They can really pass and they understand ball screens. They set the table for (Olynyk and Harris) to get a lot of those shots last year. Those are two great players, but our guards did a lot to put them in a position to make the league. Their experience will be huge for us.
SI.com: Does that loss to Wichita State linger for your players?
MF: No, they just move on from things like that. It takes the staff a little longer. I'm fine. From a coaching standpoint, I thought everybody did a great job of just kind of maxing out. I want full development of each and every player, and each and every team. And we did that. We had five and half months of total bliss and one bad night. There are teams that were fighting all year and at each other's throats and kicking people off -- I think I'd rather take the year we had.