WCC preview: It's still a Zags world

SAN BRUNO, Calif. -- Mark Few mused that as of right now Gonzaga and BYU isn’t much of a rivalry. After all, it was only in March when the Zags lost by 22 to a Jimmer Fredette-led Cougars team.

“They put it on us pretty good in the NCAAs,” Few said.

But whatever challenges Gonzaga has faced in the WCC, the program has always dismissively brushed them aside or come through in the clutch. Last season, the Zags trailed by three games in the standings, but rallied to catch Saint Mary’s and capture a share of the conference crown for its 12th straight regular-season title.

So in BYU’s first season in the WCC, Few and the Zags have put out there welcome mats.

“They’ve had a great run over the years,” Few said. “Dave’s done a phenomenal job there, and their homecourt sounds a lot like our homecourt. I’ve never been there. It’s the same kind of passion and same kind of noise level. It’s going to be an interesting challenge.”

Of course, it helps that Gonzaga is once again the WCC favorite based upon a roster loaded with returning players and stars-in-waiting. Top returning scorer and rebounder Robert Sacre is primed for a big senior season. And forward Elias Harris, after going through a sophomore slump while battling injuries, is expected to take a step forward. He spent the offseason getting better on campus rather than on the international stage as in years past.

“He really hadn’t had time to work on himself,” Few said. “He had just went from Gonzaga to [German] national team to Gonzaga to national team and never had any time in there to work on his body and work on himself. He had a great offseason. He’s in as good of a shape as he’s been in. He’s been able to work on his game and only his game, so he’s definitely a different guy than he was last year.”

The Zags also have center Sam Dower and guard Marquise Carter ready to take on more prominent roles. Point guard David Stockton, the son of John Stockton and a former walk-on, has put on weight after developing into a key bench player. The early reports on Few’s freshman class highlighted by guards Gary Bell, Jr. and Kevin Pangos are also good.

“They’re progressing fine,” Few said. “They’re great kids. They’re great teammates. They have a lot of basketball sense about them, and that usually plays out well in our program when they have the passion and like to work on it and care about it and understand it.”

Gonzaga’s long history of bullying the rest of the conference isn’t expected to skip a beat. BYU’s arrival and the league’s overall improvement certainly threaten to change that. But until proven otherwise, the road to the title still runs through Spokane.