#8 Gonzaga by Russell Steinberg

Photo: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Bulldogs came so close.

Gonzaga fought the mighty Duke Blue Devils for 40 minutes in the Elite Eight last year before finally coming up short,  again delaying the program’s quest for its first Final Four.

It was the first Elite Eight appearance for the 'Zags since 1999 and helped the program shake its reputation as an annual March letdown. But in the end, it was a season that again left the fanbase wanting more.

As the Bulldogs enter 2015-16, they keep those same Final Four aspirations of years past, and with good reason. Gonzaga returns what might be the deepest and most daunting front court in America. If Mark Few is finally able to reach the NCAA Tournament's final weekend, it's because his big men are leading the way.

Senior Kyle Wiltjer enters the season as one of college basketball's most devastating individual scorers. The 6'10 forward shot 46 percent from three last season while also ranking second on the team in rebounds per game (6.2) and third in effective field goal percentage (61.0). With a big campaign, Wiltjer could be in the mix for the Wooden Award.

Few's biggest challenge might be figuring out how Wiltjer fits with the 'Zags two other talented big men. Domantas Sabonis flirted with entering the NBA Draft following a stellar freshman campaign, but came back to fine tune his offensive skill set. The Lithuanian came off the bench in all but one game last year, but still managed to play more than 20 minutes per night while posting four double-doubles. He can clean up on the offensive glass and shot an impressive 66.4 percent from the field last year, with seven games where he was perfect from the field.

Wiltjer and Sabonis together are intimidating enough, but don't forget about senior Przemek Karnowski. A double-digit scorer each of the last two seasons, the 7’1 Karnowski is poised for another big season. Few told CBS Sports last month that the center is in the best shape of his career. He will start at the 5 spot with sophomore Ryan Edwards behind him.

Front court talent alone will be enough to keep Gonzaga competitive most nights, but in order to establish themselves as an elite team, the Bulldogs will have to figure out their guard situation. Guards Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr. and Byron Wesley have all moved on, leaving Gonzaga lacking on the perimeter.

Josh Perkins came to Spokane last year as a heralded four-star recruit, but played only five games before breaking his jaw. It’s hard to say what fans should expect from him as a starting point guard, but in limited action early last season, he showed the ability to both score and distribute. According to his scouting report coming in, he is an excellent guard in transition and is also a solid defender.

Kyle Dranginis proved to be a smart and capable ball handler last year, and he will be thrust into a larger role next year along with Silas Melson. One of those two will start alongside Perkins, with the other joining Eric McClellan and redshirt freshman Bryan Alberts in a backup role.

How the Bulldogs can succeed: Wiltjer, Sabonis and Karnowski gel into the best frontcourt in the country

Gonzaga used the same starting lineup last year for nearly every game, but 60 percent of that group is now gone. Sabonis came off the bench last season and was still one of the team’s most efficient contributors, so it’s only logical that he will start alongside Karnowski, moving Wiltjer to the wing. Wiltjer is coming off a summer where he went up against some of the best bigs in the country at the Nike Academy. It’s natural to think, then, that Gonzaga might find itself with a crowded frontcourt. Nevertheless, Few has made it clear that the trio will see minutes together, and given their talent, he has little choice.

Coming into the year, Wiltjer, Sabonis and Karnowski appear better than any frontcourt the nation -- and all three were named preseason All-West Coast Conference. But it will be interesting to see how the three of them work together on the court. As a group, they shot nearly 60 percent from the floor last season, led by Wiltjer who ranked ninth in the nation in offensive rating. If they can each carve out individual roles, the Bulldogs will be tough to stop.

Wiltjer is the best scorer in the group, with polished post-, mid-range- and perimeter games. As a freshman, Sabonis was one of the most efficient rebounders in the WCC, which gave him a ton of second-chance looks. Pairing him with Karnowski will not only be a nightmare on defense -- just imagine trying to attack the paint against them -- but it will guarantee that Gonzaga has a high-percentage opportunity every time down the court.

How Bulldogs can go home early: They can’t find production out of their bench

Gonzaga’s starting five is loaded with talent and potential, but as a whole, the Bulldogs are remarkably thin. Two scholarship players for Gonzaga -- transfers Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington) and Jonathan Williams (Missouri) -- are already sitting out the year. Edwards is the only true big coming off the bench unless you count walk-on Jeremy Jones, who actually saw some playing time at Rice.

There are more options in the backcourt, but nothing that comes across as staggering. Dranginis saw the most action last year, but other than that, no one else played more than 8.1 minutes per contest. In fairness, McClellan was not eligible until the second semester and when he did play, there were times that he looked like a solid option. Still, if anyone in the Bulldogs’ starting lineup were to get hurt or even run into consistent foul trouble, the team would find itself in serious trouble.

In the past, Gonzaga has seen success with players who have had to sit out a year -- Wiltjer and Kelly Olynyk as the two most recent examples. No one is saying that Alberts needs to perform to that level, but if he can be better than expected, it would go a long way toward solving the Bulldogs’ bench issues.

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