November 12, 2015

(AP) - No. 9 Gonzaga will enter the season set just about everywhere except at guard, a position of stability for years that now raises questions.

Not that coach Mark Few is without potential answers heading into Friday night's matchup against Pittsburgh in the Armed Forces Classic in Okinawa, Japan.

Four-year starting guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. graduated along with senior transfer Byron Wesley, leaving the Zags looking for the right backcourt combination among a host of talented options as they seek another deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

Freshman Josh Perkins, who is a candidate to replace Pangos at point guard, said practices have been intense as he battles with fellow guards Kyle Dranginis, Eric McClellan and Silas Melson to catch the eye of coaches.

''We are all playing for minutes,'' Perkins said. ''We're going to push each other.''

Gonzaga's situation is settled elsewhere. The Zags return the talented frontcourt of preseason All-American Kyle Wiltjer, Domantas Sabonis and Przemek Karnowski to a team that reached the Elite Eight last season, though Few said ''this team is a little void of leaders.''

''This is very much a team that will hopefully be on a growth trend all year,'' Few said. ''We are trying to hit the Zags standard.''

Much of Gonzaga's success will depend on the three big men, who are all considered pro prospects.

The 6-foot-10 Wiltjer led the Zags with 16.8 points per game last season and added 6.2 rebounds.

''Kyle is as skilled a player as there is in college basketball,'' Few said. ''As skilled as I've ever coached.''

Sabonis, the 6-11 son of former NBA center Arvydas Sabonis, averaged 9.7 points and 7.1 rebounds as a freshman off the bench. Sabonis, though, may not play Friday after he took a hard fall on his lower back last weekend during an exhibition game.

''With Domas, you get the heart of a lion,'' Few said. ''The guy is so physical, tough and aggressive and yet has a good feel for the game.''

The 7-1 Karnowski averaged 10.9 points and 5.8 rebounds and blocked 39 shots.

''Shem is the unsung hero in all this and a guy I think will be a solid NBA guy for years,'' Few said. ''An excellent passer, great footwork and a high-level defender.''

The Zags went 35-3 last season, losing to eventual national champion Duke in the Elite Eight. They were 17-1 in the West Coast Conference.

WCC coaches have picked the Zags to win their fourth straight league title and 15th in the past 16 years. They have played in 17 straight NCAA Tournaments, one of the longest streaks in the nation.

Pittsburgh went 19-15 last season and missed the NCAA Tournament for only the second time in coach Jamie Dixon's 12-year tenure.

Versatile forward Jamel Artis and Michael Young were often the only consistent offensive options on that squad, averaging 13.6 and 13.4 points, respectively. Dixon appreciates Artis' ability to score, but what he would like to see from Artis - and really from everyone else in a program that hasn't made it past the first weekend of the NCAAs in six years - is a little more attention to detail on the other end of the floor.

''It's what we've been known for and it's something we've done well year after year,'' Dixon said. ''We need to get back to that and it's what we're going to do.''

If the Panthers want to make inroads on the upper tier of the crowded ACC, they don't really have a choice. Pitt limped to the finish line last season, dropping its final five games, including a lifeless loss at home to George Washington in the first round of the NIT.

It wasn't what Artis or Young signed up for when they arrived on campus. Their ability to become defensive anchors may be the key to the Panthers getting back some of the grit that for so long served as their trademark.

''That's something that I look forward to improving from last year,'' Artis said. ''It's just being in the right place at the right time. We have to do more on defense, and that's what it takes to win.''

Dixon went out and tried to get his two big men some help. Junior college transfer Rozelle Nix has shed more than 50 pounds from his 6-11 frame, though at 300 pounds he still might need to drop a few more. Graduate transfer Alonzo Nelson-Ododa is second on Richmond's career block list. Redshirt freshman swingman Cameron Johnson bulked up after a shoulder injury cut short a promising start last fall.

While Dixon insists the Panthers will be versatile, the one thing they'll almost certainly have to be is tough after going 8-10 in the ACC and a marginal 6-5 in games decided by five points or less.

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