Team preview: Gonzaga

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

The munchkins of the West Coast Conference have emerged from their hiding places, and one can almost hear them singing in elation.

The wicked witch is dead.

Or is she?

Gonzaga, the tyrant that has crushed all WCC opposition for the last decade, finally appears to be vulnerable in 2006-07, having taken a pair of killer hits. With All-Americans Adam Morrison and J.P. Batista having moved on -- taking their combined 47.5 points and 14.9 rebounds-per-game with them -- what's left on the Bulldogs' roster doesn't appear terribly superior to anyone else's.

"You're not going to replace Morrison," Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett said. "If they have guys who can do that, they'll be out there again. If they don't, it opens up the door for some teams to tighten it up."

But even if the Bulldogs aren't quite ready to trot out another proven superstar, that doesn't mean they're toothless, by any means. And while the rest of the conference is confident the gap between Gonzaga, one of the nation's top teams last season, and the WCC's seven dwarfs (to mix fairy tale metaphors) has shrunk, they realize the Zags are still on top until someone proves otherwise.

"Everyone thinks Gonzaga's going to be a little down, but I know after coaching at Arizona that guys get used to winning," San Francisco coach Jessie Evans said. "They have so many championship guys returning, they're still going to be the team to beat."

And the Bulldogs know it. They realize they won't have the firepower of last season's team, but there is still experience and talent coming back. And more important, there is talent coming in.

The result is a team that probably won't have one big-time go-to guy like Morrison but will have versatility, balance and toughness, and a team that will get better as the season progresses.

"This year is going to be a little different in that we're not going to have a guy that can score 43 or a big kid who gets 20 and 10 every night," Gonzaga assistant Bill Grier said.
"We might have a different guy leading us in scoring every night. It's going to be more a balanced team.

"Adam was the highest level kid we've ever had here, and J.P. was probably the most efficient big guy we've ever had. You can't replace those two. But our program has gone through that every year. We've lost players and there have been questions coming into the next season and we've been able to have guys step up and absorb the scoring and rebounding every year."

Who absorbs how much of it is the mystery. The top candidates, of course, are Gonzaga's two returning senior starters, 6-3 guard Derek Raivio and 6-9 power forward Sean Mallon.

Often overlooked in the glare of his more celebrated teammates, Raivio has been a solid fixture in the lineup for the last two years as the point guard. His numbers actually declined last season, when he averaged 11.1 points and 2.8 assists and shot a chilly 39 percent from the field (a year after averaging 13.0 points and 4.8 assists and shooting .427, .458 from three-point range), but with more offensive opportunities available with the departure of Morrison and Batista, Raivio should flourish again.

Like Raivio, Mallon (6.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg, .506 FG) has been a strong contributor the last two seasons and will now be expected to expand his role from complementary player to leader.

"They're two seniors, two veterans," Grier said. "You count on them and look to them as guys who will be the cornerstones of this season."