Zags expect to make 16th straight NCAA tourney

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SPOKANE – Ah, the exuberance of youth, blithe rather than bleak.

“We’ve got everybody returning, pretty much, except the two post guys,” said Gary Bell Jr., relaxing recently on a seat at the McCarthey Athletic Center. “I think we’re going to be really good this year.”

Granted, extended history is on the side of Bell, Gonzaga’s junior guard from Kent­ridge High. Except that the two post guys missing from last season’s groundbreaking basketball team are a consensus All-American in Kelly Olynyk and the No. 2 career rebounder in school history, Elias Harris.

Gonzaga seeks its 16th straight NCAA-tournament appearance with a wealth of perimeter talent and a serious question about whether fifth-year senior Sam Dower and sophomore Przemek Karnowski give them enough inside to withstand a four-months-plus grind.

That leaves the 15th-year Zags coach, Mark Few, needing to get creative with lineups, even assuming Dower and Karnowski can stay healthy and out of foul trouble.

The Zags are hopeful of quick development by 7-foot-1 Montana freshman Ryan Edwards. More likely, there will be stopgap time at one forward spot for people like 6-8 Louisville transfer Angel Nunez, 6-6 sharpshooter Drew Barham and even 6-5 sophomore Ryan Dranginis.

Of first priority is an emergence by both Dower and Karnowski. Dower, 6-9, has been an offense-minded sub who has had the occasional big moment for three years, and Karnowski is a raw but talented 7-1 postman who was sought by major programs, including Duke.

“In my few years here, I’ve been a good player, but I need to make that next step to be great,” said Dower, who had a strong offseason. “I never really got the time on the court I felt I should have, and then I realized, I wasn’t working hard enough in the summer. I feel I was (previously) just going through the motions.”

So the left-handed Minnesotan worked harder, emphasizing his right hand and his body.

“Sam’s in the best shape he’s ever been in,” says Few. “Przemek’s body is different. He just looks like more of a basketball player now.”

The perimeter should be in good hands, what with Bell, point guard Kevin Pangos, reserve David Stockton and a transfer from Providence, 6-4 slasher Gerard Coleman, who averaged double figures in the Big East twice before transferring.

“He’s dynamite in the open court,” says Few of Coleman. “He can make plays at full speed. We’ll see how he does in some of these grinder types of games.”

Bell returns after a spring and summer of rehab from a crack in his left-knee cartilage (“It was nagging me the whole year,” he said) and a stress fracture of his right ankle, which robbed him of a second half against Wichita State, the team that upset the top-ranked and No.1-­seeded Zags in the NCAA tournament.

“That was a sneaky-big factor in that game,” says Few. “You lose your best three-point shooter and best perimeter defender. He doesn’t miss an assignment, he doesn’t miss a screen, he doesn’t get sucked into help on dribble penetration.”

While Wichita State was embarking on a three-week joy ride to the Final Four — and a 12-point second-half lead over eventual champ Louisville — Bell was left to spend much of the spring on crutches and in a boot.

“You get a lot of people (saying), ‘How could you lose in the (third) round? You guys were the No. 1 seed,’ ” Bell said. “But they went all the way to the Final Four, so it wasn’t a fluke. They were a good team.”

Bell is confident there will be another chance in March, and precedent favors him.

“I think we’ll be good,” he said. “Gonzaga keeps reloading.”

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