It's no longer news that the Gonzaga University men's basketball program has earned national respect -- it's their fourth consecutive year entering the season ranked in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches' Preseason Men's Top 25 poll.
However, it's not so much that rankings have much bearing on the season; it's that the preseason recognition represents the increasing shift in expectations for the small mid-major.
With the transition from the unlikely "Cinderella" to a program with a consistent place on the national stage, people are starting to wonder if this will be the Bulldogs' breakthrough year that will see them make the Final Four for the first time in school history.
Yet after losing senior leader and point guard Matt Bouldin, there's plenty of uncertainty in Spokane. There's little question that the team will be good, but how good can they become?
Who will take Matt Bouldin's place as point guard?
Statistically, Bouldin was arguably the Bulldogs' MVP last season if for no other reason because you can't replace court vision.
The 6-foot-5 point guard was by far the team's most efficient ball handler with an assist ratio of 20.68% compared to a turnover ratio of 11.75%. And not only was Bouldin a solid distributor, but he was also able to get to the free throw line at a good rate (40.43%) as well as being third on the team in rebounds per game (4.7) and a solid three point shooter (36.53%).
In other words, Bouldin did a little bit of everything for Gonzaga and, unfortunately that will be hard to replace.
The consensus among Bulldogs fans seems to be that 6-foot junior Demetri Goodson will take Bouldin's place, but although Goodson is a better finisher statistically (53.95% 2-point percentage; 58.33% free throw rate) he wasn't quite as efficient otherwise. In addition to a 16.55% turnover ratio, Goodson only shot 13.79% from the three point line for the season (though it must be noted that he shot a much better 27.27% during conference play).
The other primary option is 6-foot-4 transfer guard Marquise Carter, a player who is touted as a better athlete and one-on-one scorer than the Bulldogs had last season.
2010-11 Player Previews: Carter Set for Immediate Impact...Hyland Geared for the Future - The Slipper Still Fits
The thing that attracts lots of fans to Carter is the fact that he fits the mold of previous Gonzaga PG's because of his ability to score from the point guard position. All early reports suggest that Carter is a strong leader and has enough athleticism to get to the rim and score. Equally important is the fact that Carter is a capable shooter from the perimeter, which is something that was lacking last season. When it comes to shooting, Carter is much closer to Jeremy Pargo then Derek Raivio, but the important thing is that he has the ability to keep the defense honest on the perimeter.
While Carter might add a dynamic new dimension to the position, 6-foot-5 senior Steven Gray out of Bainbridge High School might also be a happy medium as a slightly more efficient ball handler and much stronger shooter than Goodson and a more experienced player than Carter.
It's highly unlikely that anyone on the Bulldogs roster will "replace" Bouldin, at least not right away. And without having seen Carter in action against Division I competition, it's difficult to say whether he might eventually win the position by the end of the season. However, what's clear is that whomever takes Bouldin's place will be a very different sort of player and could alter what the team is able to do.
Can they improve their turnover differential?
Whatever the Bulldogs do with the point guard position, one interesting note is that their biggest weakness statistical was the difference between their conference and non-conference turnover percentage differential - they turned the ball at a higher rate than their opponents during non-conference play.
|Assisted FG%||Turnover %|
And although it was a problem that showed up team-wide, it was most evident in the play of the aforementioned ball handlers.
|Name||Ast ratio||Tov ratio||PPR||Ast ratio||Tov ratio||PPR|
Numbers aren't everything, but these numbers represent part of the reason why there's such excitement about Carter: their ball control suffered against more athletic backcourts.
As alluded to previously, the rap on Bouldin was that he struggled against more athletic players and the numbers bear that out. But the numbers also demonstrate that beyond Bouldin, the team didn't have a strong second option.
Any coach will tell you that turnovers are a function of the team, not individual performance. But losing the player who was both their most efficient ball handler and arguably their most significant contributor leaves them in a tough position on this front.
Can Robert Sacre become a stronger presence on the offensive boards?
Another area of potential improvement for Gonzaga is offensive rebounding, which would obviously help them earn more second chance scoring opportunities. Their differential is bolstered by a solid defensive rebounding percentage (71.1%), but their offensive rebounding percentage left something to be desired and one individual they could get more from on the boards is 7-foot junior Sacre.
Sacre is an outstanding shot blocker and improving scorer, but rebounding has not been a strong point.
DraftExpress NBA Draft Prospect Profile: Robert Sacre, Stats, Comparisons, and Outlook
Perhaps his biggest weakness as it stands right now is his rebounding. Averaging only 7.7 rebounds per-40 minutes pace adjusted, one of the worst figures of any center in our database, Sacre doesn’t show much in the way of instincts on the glass, which is problematic given that he doesn’t project as a go-to type offensively, and thus may struggle to find a way to earn minutes at the NBA level.
Obviously, the rebounding burden cannot fall on one player either, but Sacre's 9.0% offensive rebounding percentage could certainly stand to improve as the team looks to move forward with a new identity.
What will their newcomers contribute?
In addition to Carter, European freshmen Mathis Keita and Mathis Monninghoff also provide plenty of reason for intrigue as described by Zach Bell of the Slipper Still Fits.
2010-11 Player Previews: European freshmen incite intrigue, but will they contribute? - The Slipper Still Fits
On an immediate basis, Keita, like Monninghoff, seems to be a guy that Gonzaga could put out there and be confident that good things will happen.
I make that last statement based on the fact that I feel this can be one of Gonzaga's most outstanding defensive teams in recent memory. With Goodson, Gray, and Arop already on the perimeter, opposing guards should have a very tough time making things happen against the Bulldogs. Adding a guy like Keita, who is very long and very quick seems to be an excellent fit for a team that was downright abysmal a season ago defending the outside. The offensive game is in development. Whereas Monninghoff already has an excellent three-point stroke, Keita's is still a work in progress. However, Keita does have an innate ability to get to the rack and challenge post players so he wouldn't be a total offensive liability.
Although the Bulldogs may be missing Bouldin's floor leadership, as Bell says, they could be a much more athletic and versatile team around the perimeter with an additional shooter and defensive wing.
Just how good can Elias Harris be this year?
It's not unreasonable to believe that Harris will leave Gonzaga among the program's best ever and that potential already has him projected as a first rounder in the 2011 NBA Draft. But the big question for Bulldogs fans is how far Harris can progress this season as the team's assumptive MVP. And the area of greatest concern for Harris probably reflects the biggest concern for NBA scouts, as described by DraftExpress:
DraftExpress NBA Draft Prospect Profile: Elias Harris, Stats, Comparisons, and Outlook
As previously hinted, his guard skills are less than desirable. He sports a negative assist to turnover ratio at 0.67, failing to show any signs that he can create for others. His ball handling skills are below average as well, as he’s unable to change his speeds/direction to beat his man in perimeter isolation situations. At 6’7, Harris will need to improve this area of his game and become more at ease away from the basket.
Last season, Harris had a turnover ratio of 12.49% which becomes a problem compared to his assist ratio (7.41%) as a player that will be expected to have the ball in his hands quite a bit. Max Mandel of the Slipper Still Fits provides an explanation for Harris' struggles.
2010-11 Player Preview: Elias Harris....the next Gonzaga star - The Slipper Still Fits
Now that he is more comfortable with his role, his teammates and the system that Gonzaga runs, I anticipate that we will see Harris develop the ability to dominate a game while playing in the flow of the offense.
If the coaching staff decides to play Elias at the SF/Wing position more this season, it's imperative that he grows more comfortable as a ball-handler and a decision maker. While he does have one of the more aggressive power dribbles in the entire country, I can't even count how many times Harris lost control of the ball and committed a charge while attempting to get to the rim. As he gets more comfortable with the ball in his hands on the wing, I believe we will see a more vast array of moves on the perimeter, which should allow for his offensive game to become dominant.
Mandel does a good job here of putting the development of last season's WCC Newcomer of the Year in perspective: although he's a relatively "old" sophomore, last season was still his first season playing Division I basketball and there's plenty of room for him to develop.
As the team's leader, this year and undoubtedly with a less experienced point guard than Bouldin, Harris' ball handling may take on a more prominent role this season. Out of all the things that Gonzaga might count on in their quest for a Final Four, Harris' development might trump the rest.