Zags need Gray to act like a leader this season
The next time Steven Gray of No. 12 Gonzaga flops when nudged by an opponent, he might credibly be accused of acting.
Gray played the part of Tybalt in a recent campus production of "Romeo and Juliet." His character is killed by Romeo.
"I make it right past intermission and then I'm gone," Gray said.
The senior guard better last longer than intermission in basketball games, coach Mark Few said. Gray averaged 13.6 points as one of four returning starters for a Gonzaga team that went 27-7 last year, 12-2 in the West Coast Conference, and lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Few said Gray, the only senior, must provide more leadership this year as the Zags seek a 13th consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament.
"We need a strong senior season from Steven," Few said. "He's not a vocal leader, but he has the respect of his teammates."
The Bulldogs lost leading scorer Matt Bouldin and his 15 points per game to graduation. But they return Elias Harris (14.9 points, 7 rebounds), Robert Sacre (10 points, 5 rebounds) and point guard Demetri Goodson (6.4 points).
Sacre is predicting no drop-off for a program that has won 10 straight WCC titles.
"We're just as strong, and just as good and close a unit as ever before," said Sacre, a 7-footer who had 65 blocked shots.
"Rob might be the most improved player on the team if you consider the progress he's made since his freshman year," Few said.
Sacre will have an early highlight when Southern comes to town for the season opener tonight. The athletic director at Southern is his father, Greg LaFleur.
"People are making it out as a big rivalry game between me and my dad," Sacre said. "It's Jags versus Zags. Let's have fun."
Point guard, long a position of strength for the Bulldogs, is something of a question mark. Goodson, a junior, averaged just 1.8 assists per game, and may be challenged for playing time by junior college transfer Marquise Carter.
"We're not going to announce that somebody is going to play 40 minutes," Few said. "It's a position that will be shared by multiple people."
Harris had one of the best freshmen seasons in Bulldog history, shooting 54 percent from the field. He pulled down 16 rebounds against Illinois.
"He has the size to bang inside and the finesse to play outside," Few said. "He's stronger than he was last year so he will be even more of a force under the basket."
The only other experienced returning players are 7-footer Kelly Olynyk and Mangisto Arop. Olynyk grew an inch and added 25 pounds over the summer.
The Zags also hope to get minutes out of redshirt freshman Sam Dower, a 6-foot-9 left-handed forward.
Another tough schedule faces the Bulldogs, with non-conference games against No. 25 San Diego State, No. 3 Kansas State, No. 13 Illinois, Notre Dame, No. 16 Baylor, Xavier, Oklahoma State, Wake Forest and No. 19 Memphis.
"That's a lot of tough games," Few said. "There's a great opportunity there to accrue some really great wins that will help our resume in March."
WSU: Washington State cleaned house after a late swoon in which the Cougars lost 10 of their final 12 games to derail a promising season and finish last in the Pacific-10.
While leading scorer Klay Thompson and four other starters return, six players left the program as coach Ken Bone sought help for Thompson. Seven new players came in to the program in Pullman, including shooter Faisal Aden.
"We were able to surround Klay with better scorers, and not have so much of the load be on his shoulders like it was last year," Bone said. "When Klay was not making shots, the team was in trouble."
Thompson, an All-Pac-10 first team selection, will be surrounded by returning starters DeAngelo Casto, Reggie Moore, Marcus Capers and Abe Lodwick. That core of veteran players is why the Cougars were picked by the media to finish fifth in the Pac-10 after stumbling to a 16-15 record last year, 8-10 in the league.
"We are anxious to get back out there, see what we can do and change our place in the standings this year," Bone said. "We have a chance to be pretty competitive in the Pac-10."
Gone from last year's team are John Allen, Michael Harthun, Xavier Thames and James Watson and Anthony Brown. Nik Koprivica graduated.
The Cougars went 14-5 to open last season, and Thompson was the leading scorer in the nation for a time. But his shooting percentage fell off to 35 percent during the Pac-10 portion of the season, and the other Cougars struggled to score.
Thompson, a 6-foot-6 junior guard, finished with an average of 19.6 points per game, third in the league. Moore (12.7 ppg) and Casto (10.7 ppg) were their only other scoring threats. Casto shot 49.8 percent from the field and was also a member of the Pac-10 all-defensive team led the Cougars with 7.0 rebounds per game. Moore, a member of the all-freshman team, averaged 4.2 assists. Capers made 6.9 points and 4.1 rebounds.
Aden, a 6-foot-4 guard, is coming from Hillsborough Community College in Florida, where he averaged 23 points, 7.1 rebounds and 3.0 steals per game.
"He's going to help me out a lot," said Thompson, the son of former NBA star Mychal Thompson.
One of 50 preseason candidates for the Wooden Award, Thompson spent the summer working on his strength and quickness, with a goal of being more than a scorer.
"I want to be more versatile and help my teammates by being a playmaker," Thompson said.
There are no seniors on the team, but eight juniors.
Among the newcomers, Bone also likes freshman Dre' Winston, a strong defender who can back up Moore at guard and also sometimes play alongside him.
The Cougars also will unveil freshman Patrick Simon, a 6-foot-8 forward from Ephrata who committed to the program four years ago.
"He can really shoot the ball," Bone said. "He's such a weapon from out there."
Washington State's non-conference schedule is highlighted by home games against No. 3 Kansas State and No. 12 Gonzaga.
Bone thinks the Pac-10 will be better this year, after suffering through a down campaign.
"This conference won't be down for long," Bone said. "I think we will compete nationally this year."