SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) The question all season was whether this was the greatest team in the history of Gonzaga basketball.
The answer after the Bulldogs finally broke through to the Elite Eight again but fell short of the Final Four again has to remain: Maybe.
This season’s edition (35-3) won more games than any team in school history and finally broke the streak of five straight years of losing in the NCAA Tournament’s round of 32. The Bulldogs advanced to the second weekend of the tournament for the first time since 2009.
”We made it to the Elite Eight and that is something you dream of, to play on this stage,” said Gary Bell Jr.
Now the question is what does next year hold? For now, at least, Gonzaga seems to be in good shape.
Forward Kyle Wiltjer, who led the team in scoring and was named to the AP All-America third team on Monday, has indicated he intends to come back for his senior season.
”I’ve got another year of eligibility so that’s my plan right now,” Wiltjer said.
Center Przemek Karnowski and freshman forward Domantas Sabonis are also eligible to return, which would give the Zags one of the most potent front courts in college basketball.
But the Zags will lose guards Kevin Pangos and Bell, who posted a 122-20 record during their four years as the starting back court.
”You’re not going to get higher character guys, you’re not going to get better Zags, you’re not going to get better teammates,” coach Mark Few said. ”They’re right there with the greatest that have ever played. No question they’re probably the greatest back court.”
Though Pangos and Bell combined for just nine points in Gonzaga’s 66-52 loss to top-seeded Duke on Sunday.
Gonzaga will also lose another unique contributor in Byron Wesley, who played for three years at Southern California and then joined the Zags this season as a graduate transfer student because he wanted to play in the NCAA tournament.
Wesley emerged as one of the team’s better inside scorers this season. He scored 10 points and grabbed five rebounds against Duke.
”I just want to say how proud I am of my teammates and coaches for fighting all year,” Wesley said. ”This is going to hurt for a while, but to be at the top of the food chain as far as Gonzaga teams, with all the great teams that have been here, is really something special.”
This was Gonzaga’s 17th straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament, the past 16 under Few. They are 19-16 in tournament games.
The Zags were dominant for much of the year. They lost in December at Arizona then ripped off a school-record 22-game winning streak before suffering a rare home loss late in the season to BYU. They ran away again with the West Coast Conference regular-season and tournament titles, then beat North Dakota State, Iowa and UCLA in the first three rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
They figure to be good next year, especially if Wiltjer, Karnowski and Sabonis return. Veteran guard Kyle Dranginis is back. Freshmen guards Josh Perkins and Silas Melson showed flashes of brilliance in limited play this season.
”There’s no reason why we can’t get to this point and beyond as a program,” Pangos said. ”Unfortunately, we couldn’t make it to the Final Four, but I want them to in the near future.”