After a promising start last season, Gonzaga fizzled thanks in large part to an embarrassing public distraction.
With Josh Heytvelt among a core that is back, the 14th-ranked Bulldogs open their season on Sunday when they host Montana.
Gonzaga won nine of its first 11 games last year, but fell out of the Top 25 in December after dropping five of six. That was compounded by the suspension of Heytvelt, a forward who was averaging 15 points and a team-leading seven rebounds last season when he was arrested along with teammate Theo Davis for drug possession. Gonzaga would finish the season 23-11 and lost to Indiana in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Heytvelt missed the final nine games. He and Davis, also a forward, were reinstated in October.
“I am blessed with the opportunity to come back,” Heytvelt said.
His return along with Jeremy Pargo and Matt Bouldin, gives Gonzaga a veteran core to help it bounce back. Pargo averaged 12.1 points and team-high 4.6 assists last season while Bouldin averaged 8.9 points.
Gonzaga also returns David Pendergraft and Micah Downs, who helped make up for Heytvelt’s absence. Pendergraft averaged 7.3 points, but scored in double figures in six of the Bulldogs’ final seven games. Downs averaged 8.1 points in 17 games, but scored 14.3 ppg over the final six contests.
The Bulldogs lost leading scorer Derek Raivio and forward Sean Mallon to graduation, but return of many other key players leaves coach Mark Few optimistic. Still, he is cautious about comparing this team to those he’s coached in the past.
“They are not even close to that yet,” Few said. But, “we do have a lot of good depth and good solid players.”
Gonzaga also brings in a lot of new talent in freshman Austin Daye, Robert Sacre and Steven Gray. Daye and Sacre combined to average 55 points per game in high school and Gray was the AP Player of the Year in Washington state.
“We have a lot of depth with the freshmen coming in,” said Pendergraft. “There is more talent on this team than any other team, top to bottom.”
Gonzaga hopes that experience and depth will pay off during a difficult non-conference schedule that includes ranked teams in Washington State, Tennessee and Memphis along with traditional powers Connecticut and Oklahoma. The Bulldogs also are scheduled to play in the Great Alaska Shootout.
Gonzaga opens the schedule against Montana (1-0), which began its season Friday with a 75-39 win over Colorado State. Andrew Strait scored 14 points and had eight rebounds while Jordan Hasquet added 12 points and nine rebounds.
Cameron Rundles, the Big Sky Freshman of the Year last season, had 11 points and eight assists.
The Grizzlies went 10-of-21 from 3-point range, outscored the Rams 49-20 in the second half and shot 48.1 percent.
This is the first meeting between Montana and Gonzaga since 2004. The Grizzlies have lost eight straight against the Bulldogs with their last win coming in 1996.