Gonzaga struggling after opening in Top 10
SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) Gonzaga began the season ranked in the Top 10 and was expected to ride the imposing front court of Kyle Wiltjer, Domantas Sabonis and Przemek Karnowski deep into the NCAA Tournament.
But a season-ending back injury to Karnowski and inconsistent play from the guards has caused the Zags to stumble this season.
Gonzaga (15-5, 7-2 West Coast) has fallen out of the Top 25 and its run of 17 straight trips to the NCAA Tournament may be in danger.
''Obviously, we are disappointed,'' said Wiltjer, a preseason All-America selection who is averaging 21.7 points and 7 rebounds per game.
Sabonis is also playing well, averaging 17.5 points and a league-high 11.5 rebounds per game.
But beyond them, the play has been inconsistent.
Guards Josh Perkins, Eric McClellan, Bryan Alberts, Silas Melson and Kyle Dranginis show flashes of brilliance at times, then disappear at others.
''We are screaming out for consistency out of that spot,'' coach Mark Few said.
To be sure, most teams would be pleased with Gonzaga's record. Their five losses were to No. 5 Texas A&M by one point, No. 18 Arizona, UCLA, and league rivals BYU and Saint Mary's. The five losses have been by a total of 15 points.
But the Zags have lost three home games this season, a first for the program since the early 1990s. Last year, they lost only three games in a season that ended in the Elite Eight.
''We are learning from our mistakes and hopefully we can continue to get better,'' Wiltjer said.
The Zags still have one more chance at a statement win when they play at No. 13 SMU on Feb. 13.
''We have preseason goals and those goals are still attainable,'' Perkins said. ''Every game means something to us.''
Their top goal remains getting to an 18th consecutive NCAA Tournament, a remarkable streak by a mid-major. Only three schools - Kansas, Duke and Michigan State - have longer active streaks.
Few, in his 17th season, has never won fewer than 23 games and never failed to take the Zags to the Big Dance.
Few said he is generally satisfied with the progress his team has made so far.
''I never thought we would lose one of our main three,'' Few said, referring to Karnowski. ''You lose experience and your best rim protector. That hurt us
''But every one of the games we dropped were winnable,'' Few added. ''We are frustrated with that, but realistic.''
The reality is that Gonzaga remains second in the WCC, one game behind Saint Mary's. The bitter rivals have a rematch on Feb. 20 in Spokane.
Gonzaga has won 14 of the past 15 regular-season league titles.
More consistent scoring from the guards would be a big boost for the team. McClellan showed signs last week, scoring 23 against Saint Mary's and 19 against Pacific to push his average to 10.4 points per game.
''He's playing with confidence right now,'' Wiltjer said. ''For us, it's huge.''
Based on past performances, the Zags are almost certain to win at least 20 games again. But they may need to win the WCC tournament in Las Vegas to guarantee another trip to the NCAAs.
''We are right where we want to be,'' Wiltjer said. ''We have to continue to have the approach of one game at a time and hopefully everything will work itself out.''
Few declined to look down the road.
''We can't look at big picture stuff,'' Few said. ''All we can handle is one game.''