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Crumpacker: Big Week Looming for the Bulldogs

Dec. 4, 2014

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By John Crumpacker, WCC Columnist | @CrumpackerOnWCC

With players on the roster who transferred in from USC, Kentucky and Vanderbilt, it's fair to wonder how Gonzaga might fare in the Pac-12 and Southeastern conferences were it suddenly plucked from the West Coast Conference and placed in either of those Power 5 leagues.

So we asked, first Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer and then USC transfer (and graduate) Byron Wesley. They ought to know the quality of their current team in the context of the conferences in which their former teams played.

Wiltjer, a 6-foot-10 forward named the SEC's Sixth Man of the Year in 2012-13 as a sophomore at Kentucky, said, "I think we would be fine (playing in the SEC). We have a very talented team, regardless of conference. I think we'd be a good team in any conference.''

Wesley, who earned his degree at USC in three years and then transferred to Gonzaga as a graduate student, was more expansive on the subject of his current team playing in his former conference.

"I was actually talking to Kevin (Pangos) about that the other day,'' Wesley said. "I think we would play really well in the Pac-12. It would be pretty cool to see a team like Gonzaga get to play against that caliber of team every night.''

Wesley and his teammates will grow familiar with the Pac-12 when they play three of the conference's members over an eight-day span that could enhance even further the national reputation of the Jesuit school from Spokane, Wa.

First up for the No. 9-ranked Zags is No. 3 Arizona on Saturday afternoon in Tucson, followed by a home game against Washington State on Dec. 10 and a road game at UCLA on the 13th.

"This is certainly a game I marked on my calendar once I committed here,'' Wesley said of the Arizona contest. "I know my teammates have a sour taste in their mouths from last year how it ended.''

Arizona ended Gonzaga's stay in the NCAA Tournament last March with an 84-61 victory in the second round. From his USC days, Wesley is the only current Gonzaga player with experience playing Arizona on its home court at the McHale Center.

"I just told them it's an awesome environment,'' he said. "Guys on our team have played in big games before. I don't think that will be a factor. One thing I did tell them is (Arizona's) defense is pretty solid.''

In a 7-0 start for Gonzaga, Wiltjer is the team's leading scorer at 16.0 points per game. He was a McDonald's All-American as a prep in Portland and said he is familiar with most of Arizona's players.

"They're going to be ready to play in their building,'' he said. "They're going to want to defend that. It's always really fun as a competitor to go to someone else's building and try to ruin their weekend.''

The three-game stretch at Arizona, home against Washington State and at UCLA should certainly prepare Gonzaga for the start of conference play on Dec. 27 at high-scoring BYU.

"We're excited,'' Wesley said. "We have a stretch of really good games coming up. We need to keep the momentum going.''

Few teams have started the season as strong as coach Mark Few's Bulldogs. Gonzaga is 7-0 and has a plus-29.4 scoring differential, is shooting .545 percent as a team and nearly 40 percent from three-point range, with a 12.6 advantage in rebounding. Four of five starters average in double-figures and top reserve Domantas Sabonis is at 12.6 per game.

"Gonzaga is on a different level,'' San Francisco coach Rex Walters said. "Gonzaga is really good. We've got a lot of work to do to get to that level. They are long and athletic. With Kyle Wiltjer and Byron Wesley, on some nights they're only their third or fourth best players.''

The play of Wiltjer and the 6-4 Wesley on the wing has certainly bolstered the team in its robust start to 2014-15. The former benefitted from a redshirt year in 2013-14 practicing every day against his teammates while the latter made an immediate switch to Gonzaga after graduating from USC.

"I almost came here out of high school, so I knew a lot about the program,'' Wiltjer said. "That was an added benefit. It's been great. My teammates and coaches have really helped me transition very easily. It was very helpful having a year off (as a redshirt). I think I've really improved my game.''

Wesley, meanwhile, said the welcoming attitude of his new teammates made his transition from Los Angeles to Spokane a seamless one.

"Once I announced I was transferring, I came here on my visit,'' Wesley said. "Kevin and Gary (Bell Jr.) and Kyle all reached out to me and let me know there's a place for me if I wanted to come here. That meant a lot. I feel real comfortable here. The process, I don't think, could have worked out any better. My teammates are all unselfish. They've all been positive toward me and treated me as a family member from Day 1.''

As potent as Gonzaga is now, it might be even more formidable once 6-3 guard Eric McClellan, the Vandy transfer, becomes eligible on Jan. 6, in time for the Zags' fourth WCC game on Jan. 8 against San Francisco.

It's a happy dilemma for Few and his staff to wrangle with, how to find playing time for all those talented players.

"It's a good problem for the coaches to have,'' Wiltjer said. "Having that added depth will be good for the (guard) position.''

Wesley said, "Coach (Few) knows what he's doing. He'll figure out a way to fit Eric into our system. Eric's been working hard the whole time. It's exciting to get a guy who's been in college. He's a veteran. He's played in big games. It's exciting to have another talented piece (to the puzzle).''

The only downer to Gonzaga's 7-0 start to the season was the injury to freshman guard Josh Perkins. In a scary collision with a Georgia player on Nov. 26 at Madison Square Garden, Perkins broke his jaw on an unintentional flying leg kick that caught him flush on the side of the face. He has the jaw wired shut and will be out at least two months, reduced to shakes, smoothies and soup for sustenance.

"I was cutting to the basket,'' Wesley said of the incident. "I kind of heard it, the knee go straight to the mouth. I've never seen a collision like that in my life. All I could do was hope for the best.''

While the weather in Spokane can be frightful this time of year, the basketball being played at Gonzaga is as close to paradise as eastern Washington gets, the equivalent of sunny days and white sand beaches, tropical drinks with little umbrellas and Bob Marley pumping through the sound system at a beachfront bar.

John Crumpacker spent more than three decades working at the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle. During his career he has covered the full gamut of sports from prep to professionals. Most recently, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for Cal through the end of the 2013-14 season. In addition to covering 10 Olympic Games, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for the San Francisco 49ers. He is a two-time winner of the Track & Field Writers of America annual writing award and has several APSE Top 10 writing awards.