This is shaping up as Robert Sacre's team as No. 23 Gonzaga seeks a 14th consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament.
The top returning scorer and rebounder for the Zags even got a scheduling bonus this year: Gonzaga will play Hawaii in Sacre's hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia.
"They surprised me," Sacre said of the game. "It's a great gift."
The 7-foot senior averaged 12.5 points and 6.3 rebounds last season for a Gonzaga team that finished 25-10 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament before losing to BYU.
Coach Mark Few appreciates what the senior supplies on and off the court as the Bulldogs prepare to open the season looking for a 24th consecutive victory over Eastern Washington on Friday night in Spokane.
"Rob plays with a high level of intensity when it's time, has a good time when it's not," Few said. "I love his enthusiasm and his zest for life. He picks us all up when he enters the gym."
In addition to Sacre, the Zags are well stocked in veteran big men, including Elias Harris, 7-footer Kelly Olynyk and Sam Dower. Harris is a Wooden Award Preseason Top 50 candidate. He averaged 12.4 points and 6 rebounds last year. Dower averaged 7.6 points and 3.3 rebounds off the bench, and Olynyk added 5.8 points per game and 3.8 rebounds per game.
"We have a ton of experience coming back in the front court," Few said.
Few will also be counting on senior guard Marquise Carter, who took over the point role late last season and averaged 6.3 points and 2.1 assists per game.
The Bulldogs also return guards Mathis Monninghoff, Mathis Keita, David Stockton, and Michael Hart, all of whom made contributions last season. Stockton, son of Gonzaga great John, saw plenty of minutes at point as a freshman.
The main loss from last year is leading scorer Steven Gray, who averaged nearly 14 points per game. Demetri Goodson and Manny Arop both left the program.
New players include 6-foot-6 forward Guy Landry Edi, who transferred from Midland, Texas, Junior College, and 6-foot-8 Ryan Spangler, a freshman from Blanchard, Okla. New guards are Gary Bell Jr. from Kentridge High in Kent, Wash., who was named Mr. Basketball for the state of Washington; Kevin Pangos from Newmarket, Ontario; and Kyle Dranginis, a two-time Gatorade Idaho Player of the Year from Skyview High in Nampa, Idaho.
Bell and Pangos figure to be in the rotation immediately.
"I wouldn't say it's one of my overly talented teams," Few said. "But the chemistry is probably as good as any team I've had here."
Gonzaga's 25-10 record included winning the last seven West Coast Conference games, plus both games in the WCC tournament to earn a 13th straight trip to the NCAA tournament. They beat St. John's in the tournament before losing to BYU.
This year's schedule includes home games against Notre Dame, Michigan State and Butler in the McCarthey Athletic Center. The Bulldogs will face No. 16 Arizona in their annual Battle in Seattle, and play at Illinois and No. 14 Xavier.
"It's going to be a good year," Sacre said
Few said it may be the toughest non-conference schedule Gonzaga has ever had.
"I would guess nobody in the country has a non-league schedule that can rival that," Few said. "There's no dogs in there."
The Bulldogs have been picked by league coaches to win a 12th consecutive WCC regular season championship, despite the addition of BYU to the conference this season.
Gonzaga has a chance to ease into that rough schedule against Eastern Washington, which has not beaten the Bulldogs since Jan. 8, 1990. Sacre and Monninghoff each had 13 points as Gonzaga shot 57.9 percent in an 86-57 win over the Eagles on Nov. 30.
Eastern Washington (10-20) opens 2011-12 under new coach Jim Hayford, who went 217-57 in 10 seasons for Division III Whitworth University in Spokane. The Eagles return eight letterwinners, including 6-7 Tremayne Johnson, who averaged 10.0 points and 5.1 rebounds last season.