Three Big Things: Gonzaga

In the buildup to Midnight Madness, ESPN Insider and our college hoops team are collaborating on a preview of one high-profile college hoops team per day -- based on Joe Lunardi’s top 20 teams in his offseason Bracketology. We're calling it "Countdown To Madness." I'll be tracing three key things you should know about each team we preview. We're calling that Three Big Things. (Hey, that's snappy!) Today: Gonzaga.

1. I can be wordy. It’s an affliction. So when Brett Edgerton and I were tossing around ideas for how to structure this series of preseason preview analyses, we decided that hitting on some small number of major points would be the best way to go. We could focus on the key statistics, themes or ideas we have about each team’s upcoming season, while maintaining some space for me to, you know, be wordy. I think it’s gone pretty well thus far.

But I’ll admit: When I sat down to write today’s edition, I found it remarkably difficult to pick out just three things worth highlighting about the 2012-13 Gonzaga Bulldogs. And guess what? I blame Gonzaga.

Why? Because from this distant vantage point, still six weeks removed from the start of the 2012-13 season, Mark Few’s team appears to be one of the most balanced squads on the West Coast -- if not the country.

The Bulldogs finished ranked in the top 35 in both offensive and defensive efficiency in 2011–12, per Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency metrics. They return four starters (Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell, Jr., Mike Hart and Elias Harris) and, in the place of center Robert Sacre, will add one of the most promising emerging big men in the country in versatile forward Sam Dower. With the exception of Hart, all of those players posted offensive ratings higher than 110.0 in 2011-12. The Zags shot the ball well from both inside and outside the arc, and got to the free-throw line at the seventh-highest rate in the country.

There’s little reason to expect anything different in 2012-13. As a baseline, this team will again be one of the best on the West Coast, the favorite to win the West Coast Conference, and a near-lock to get back to the NCAA tournament.

2. So where’s the intrigue? To me, it’s comes from the question of how far this team can go -- how much more than that baseline it can achieve.

There are a few reasons to believe that’s possible. The first is sophomore guard Pangos, who announced his presence in November with a breakout debut, and followed it up with a season in which he led his team in available minutes played, posted a 119.0 offensive rating, a true shooting mark of 60.5 percent, and a 21.7 assist rate, while making 40 percent of his 197 3-point field-goal attempts. It’s difficult to fathom Pangos having a better offensive season than that, but he was just a freshman. If he improves, he’ll be one of the best guards in the country -- and if there’s one thing we know about the NCAA tournament, it’s that having a great lead guard never hurts.

Another reason is senior forward Harris. Harris was one of the most highly touted recruits Few ever landed, and he might not have planned on being a four-year veteran when he first arrived in Spokane. As a freshman, Harris was borderline brilliant, but his sophomore campaign found him overweight; last summer, the native German (understandably) blamed that on his difficult adjustment to our horrendous American portion sizes. As a junior, Harris was good. Not great, but good. His best work came on the defensive glass, where he finished with a 24.4 percent defensive rebounding rate. With one last go at a deep tournament run, does Harris have one last star-turn campaign left in him?

One more is Dower, who will step into Sacre’s rather large sneakers in Gonzaga's frontcourt. Sacre was a big, plodding strongman, a guy who never quite found his offensive polish but was nigh immovable when around the rim. Dower is an entirely different proposition, a smooth spot-shooting forward with range out to 20 feet. Dower showed flashes of brilliance in his junior season -- I saw him torch Xavier on New Year’s Eve -- and his offensive versatility is a major weapon yet to be fully unleashed. If he can help Harris anchor the middle of the defense, while keeping that offensive touch alive, he could be in line for a major breakout season.

3. Then again, he may not have to. Which brings us to the biggest wild card -- the biggest reason this always-solid program might be due for a deep tournament run -- in an otherwise seemingly easy-to-read offseason. His name is Przemek Karnowski.

Wait … who?

Funny -- that’s the exact reaction I had when Karnowski committed to the Zags this summer. Karnowski wasn’t highly sought after stateside, or a big-time name on most recruiting boards. But almost immediately after he announced his decision, the Polish 7-footer was showered with praise by the folks who know the foreign recruiting scene better than most. Draft Express’ Jonathan Givony called him a “McDonald’s All-American-type recruit.” ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla -- who spends more hours watching tape of European players than I spend playing "Civilization V" (hint: that’s a lot) -- said Karnowski was fashioned in “the Marc Gasol mold.”

Maybe Karnowski is still a bit raw. Maybe he’ll need time to adjust to the American game. But if he’s everything he’s cracked up to be, he could be a dominant center not just in the dominant-center-free WCC, but relative to the rest of the country as well. However you slice it, there is major upside there.

Even if the rest of the Zags' lineup performs much as it did in 2011-12 -- which, just to review, was quite good -- the addition of a 7-foot force in the middle could be enough to put Few’s team over the top.

We know Gonzaga will duel with Saint Mary’s and BYU for top WCC honors (and, this year, probably win them), and we know it will be back in the NCAA tournament. But Bulldogs fans are hoping for something more this season. Frankly, it’s hard to call those expectations unfounded.