Gonzaga has same expectations despite rebuilding

This is the closest to a rebuilding season Gonzaga basketball has had in years. Four starters from last year’s Sweet 16 team are gone.

Matt Bouldin leads a small group of returning letterwinners, joined by 10 newcomers who have never played college basketball.

“I’d rather look at seven veterans that have been here for four years,” coach Mark Few said. “A majority of the people on the floor are new to this program.”

Not that anyone in the West Coast Conference takes much comfort in that. The Zags have won nine straight WCC regular-season titles and made 11 straight trips to the NCAA tournament.

Portland has all five starters back from a team that finished 19-13 last season. But coach Eric Reveno doesn’t expect the Zags to be down.

“Can we compete for the second or third spot?” Reveno said. “How close are we to Gonzaga?”

The other WCC coaches predicted Gonzaga would win the league again, despite the loss of starters Austin Daye, who became a first-round NBA draft pick after his sophomore year, Josh Heytvelt, Jeremy Pargo and Micah Downs.

Gonzaga‘s nine straight league titles is the longest active streak in the nation, and tied for fourth-longest in history. Kentucky won nine straight conference titles from 1944-52. Connecticut won 10 straight from 1951-60, while UNLV won 10 straight from 1983-92. UCLA has the longest streak with 13 consecutive titles from 1967-79.

The non-conference schedule, as usual, is ridiculously difficult to make up for the Zags’ lightly regarded WCC schedule. The Zags have games against No. 2 Michigan State, No. 9 Duke, No. 17 Oklahoma and No. 23 Illinois, plus Wake Forest, Memphis and Washington State. They play Colorado in the Maui Invitational and then either Arizona or Wisconsin in the second game.

“That schedule has always served us well,” Few said. “Hopefully this year will not be different.”

Bouldin is a senior and All-West Coast Conference selection who scored 13.6 points and dished 3.4 assists per game last year.

“I think this year’s team is going to need me more as a leader,” Bouldin said.

“Matt has had a great career already,” Few said. “As he goes, so our team goes.”

Also back is junior guard Steven Gray, who averaged 9 points and 3 rebounds last year. Sophomore Demetri Goodson will take over for Pargo at point guard.

A key to success will be the play of 7-foot post player Robert Sacre, who missed nearly all of last season with foot problems. He spent the summer working out with former Gonzaga star Casey Calvary.

“I helped Casey lose some weight,” Sacre joked. “We pushed each other.”

Many of the freshmen will have to contribute this season, Few said.

Newcomers expected to get plenty of playing time are Mangisto Arop, Sam Dower, Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris. The freshmen include 5-foot-10 guard David Stockton, the son of Gonzaga and Utah Jazz great John Stockton.

The Zags are not ranked in the preseason Top 25, which Sacre said they can use as a motivating tool.

“We will come guns ablazing,” Sacre said. “Call us Yosemite Sam, I guess.”