There will be some anxious moments for Mark Few this winter as he learns to live without two-time West Coast Conference Player of the Year Blake Stepp and tough-guy center Cory Violette, the first two players Few recruited after taking over the Gonzaga program five years ago.
But Few's anxiety could have been much worse had Ronny Turiaf, the Bulldogs' talented forward, decided -- as many thought he would -- to leave school early and declare for the NBA Draft.
Instead, Turiaf opted to stay for his senior season, thus negating the potential for any massive falloff in GU's steady rise to the upper echelon of college basketball.
With Turiaf averaging a team-high 15.5 points and 6.4 rebounds, the Zags won a school-record 21 straight games, breezed through WCC play with a perfect 14-0 record and finished 28-3 after being upset by Nevada in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Now, with Turiaf back -- along with a solid supporting cast that includes a trio of proven sophomores and the most highly touted recruiting class in the school's history -- there seems to be little reason to expect GU's string of six consecutive NCAA appearances to end this winter.
FRONTCOURTAlong with the 243-pound Turiaf, a native of Le Robert, Martinique, the Bulldogs return a pair of sophomores -- Adam Morrison and Sean Mallon -- who were named to the WCC's All-Freshman team last season.
Morrison, a 6-foot-8 wing, has a remarkable knack for finding open spaces on the offensive end of the floor and finishing plays inside and out. He averaged 11.4 points and 4.3 rebounds last year and has a chance to become GU's all-time career scoring leader. Mallon was a solid reserve who proved he could score, defend and rebound against the WCC's best. "He's made a lot of strides over the summer," Few says of Mallon, who can shoot the 3-pointer almost as well at Morrison. "He's going to be counted on heavily to score and provide some toughness."
So is J.P. Batista, a transfer from Barton County (Kans.) Community College who averaged 20.2 points and 9.2 rebounds as a sophomore.
"He gives us another much-needed mature presence," Few says. "And we're counting on him to provide some muscle and some enforcer-like qualities inside."
In addition, the Bulldogs boast several other outstanding frontline prospects in freshmen Josh Heytvelt and Calum MacLeod, a 7-footer from New Zealand who redshirted last winter.
BACKCOURTThe loss of Stepp, a four-year starter and second-team All-American, is huge and could force Few into a point-guard-by-committee approach.
"We'll play a little differently -- a little less structured, maybe -- than we've played in the past," Few says, "because this will be the first year we haven't had veteran leadership at the point since Matt Santangelo was a freshman (in 1997)."
That means the majority of the point guard duties will fall to sophomore Derek Raivio, a superb outside shooter who averaged 11.3 minutes per game as Stepp's backup.
Freshman Pierre Marie Altidor-Cespedes could see some time at the point as well, along with Nathan Doudney, a transfer from Texas Tech who scored a career-high 25 points against Texas in the quarterfinals of the 2003 Big 12 Tournament.
Doudney will also be asked to spell junior Erroll Knight, the Zags' best perimeter defender, at the No. 2 spot, which could also be manned by the versatile Morrison.
FINAL ANALYSISVictories won't be as easy to come by as in the past. But if Turiaf, the lone scholarship senior on the roster, can keep himself out of foul trouble and emerge as a dominant player, look for the Zags to be the class of their league once again.
Granted, there is a lack of senior leadership and backcourt experience. But until one of the other seven teams in the league steps forward and proves it can beat the Bulldogs in a game that really matters, there is no reason to predict a change at the top in the WCC.