Last time Xavier played Gonzaga, this happened. Big Kenny and Jamel McLean both got into early foul trouble, and Xavier's lack of front court depth was seriously exposed. With Andrew Taylor et al deputizing in the middle, the semi-loathsome Robert Sacre ran riot for 22 points on 6-14/0-0/8-10 shooting. X got into a hole early and could never find a way out. Whether this was due to home cooking by the officials (as many of us intimated), an off night from the Muskies (Cheek and Dante combined to shoot 6-22/3-11/2-7 and Tu turned it over seven times), or a combination of both is only debatable as a measure of degrees.
Mark Few is not only an excellent coach but is also a model of the stability that Xavier fans are hoping to achieve with Chris Mack. After current Long Beach State coach Dan Monson passed through after only a couple of years, Few set up shop in Spokane in 1999 and has compiled a 315-83 record while taking the Zags to the NCAA tournament every year. Few is currently under contract until 2015, and Bulldogs fans no doubt hope that he will not only honor that contract but remain on campus for years after that. Few has demonstrated that a coaching position that his predecessor saw as a stepping stone can be a destination to the right coach.
I'll finish my soliloquy on Mark Few later though; more pertinently to today's discussion is that he's a darn good basketball coach. His teams have been in the top 50 of AdjO since Ken Pomeroy started tracking it, and have only twice (Adam Morrison's last two years) fallen out of the top 100 in AdjD. This offensive success has come despite wildly fluctuating turnover and offensive rebound rates, thanks in large part to consistently top 50 or above national rankings in 2P%, 3P%, and eFG%. This leads one to believe that Few (a) recruits good shooters and (b) puts them in positions to execute. Gonazaga's offense is consistently slightly up-tempo, but not so much that it looks like a track meet. Defensively, the Zags stay mostly man and don't force a lot of turnovers, but perform well in defensive eFG% and keeping their opponents off the boards.
The departure that jumps off the page from Gonzaga is that of guard Steven Gray. Gray was a senior last year, and he led the Bulldogs with a 13.9/3.9/4.0 line on .410/.372/.759 shooting. He did not, however, factor in the Xavier game, as he was out with an injury. Guard Demetri Goodson transfered out of Gonzaga over the offseason, leaving to not only find a different school but to pick up a different sport. Goodson will finish his collegiate career on the gridiron; his 5.2/2.8/2.6 line in 22 minutes per game suggests that he may have made the correct call. Mangisto Arop, another role player, also departed Gonzaga in lieu of finishing out his eligibility there. That makes seven recent transfers for the Zags, showing that Xavier's issues with Latham and Canty and other recruiting near misses are far from extraordinary.
Gonzaga returns Robert Sacre, who accounted for the use of more than a quarter of the team's possessions when he was on the court. The seven-footer posted 12.5/6.3/1.1 on a shooting line of .488/.000/.823 and added almost two blocks per game. His FT Rate (100*FTA/FGA, basically a measure of how well a player gets to the line when he tries to score) of 70 was 46th in the nation last year; for comparison, Big Kenny's was 29.2. The point is that Sacre gets to the line a lot and makes the most of his opportunities there.
Also returning is 6'8" forward Elias Harris. Harris went for 12.4/6.0/1.3 on .517/.353/.772 shooting last year and provides offensive production inside and out. Sam Dower was effective for 7.6 and 3.3 in 14.1 minutes as a freshman; the 6'8" forward's return will bolster an already impressive front line for the Zags. Further from the bucket, Marquise Carter is probably the most "sure thing" returning guard and will have an opportunity to fill Gray's vacant shoes. He put up 6.3/1.6/2.1 on .477/.386/.836 last year despite using only 16.7% of the team's possessions when he was on the floor. Sharpshooter Mathis Monninghoff also returns; as a freshman, he knocked down 33 of his 72 three-point attempts (.458).
The combination of departing transfers and natural attrition has left Few and his staff with some holes to fill, and they have gone about doing just that in pretty sound fashion. The flashiest signings for the 2011-2012 season were a pair of highly-touted guards. Gary Bell, Jr is a 6'2" SG out of Washington who was sought after by a number of PAC-10 (or how many ever there are now) schools. His ability to fill it up from outside couples well with his length an athletic ability in finishing near the rim. Bell has some work to do on his handle, but he was a big get for Few and his staff.
PG Kevin Pangos was almost as well thought of out of high school. His lateral burst and ball-handling ability allow him to break down defenses, and reports note that he has good passing vision when he gets past his man. He has a tendency to get too fancy and turn the ball over, but a good coaching staff should be able to mould him into a fine player. Kyle Dranginis of basketball hotbed Skyview High in Idaho is a great shooter but - at 6'5", 175 - is noted to be "physically weak." Ryan Spangler is a 6'8", 225 pound PF who has good big-man skills and the breadth to do damage inside. He's not an exceptional athlete, but neither was Jason Love.
The size a versatility of the front court players returning for Gonzaga give Few and his staff some flexibility going into the season. The same can not be said for the guard positions, where the graduation of Steven Gray and the somewhat less orthodox departure of Demetri Goodson leave the Zags a little bit thin. If Carter can't take his game to the next level and/or Mathis Monninghoff and former walk-on David Stockton can't adjust to larger roles, a lot is going to be asked of a talented but callow group of freshman that was brought in to plug these holes down the road. If the perimeter play can rise to the standard that the front court seems ready to set, this could be another very good season for in Spokane. If they can't the quality the Bulldogs boast up front should still be enough to get them into the NCAA tournament. By the time they square off with Xavier on New Year's Eve, we should have a pertty good idea of what the case is going to be.