Talented Zags, led by backcourt stars Gary Bell and Kevin Pangos, are thinking big this season. "We want to go places Gonzaga teams haven't been," says Pangos.

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SPOKANE — The days have long since passed when Gonzaga could lie in the weeds and surprise anybody in college basketball. But this year, it seems possible that the Zags, even ranked No. 21 by The Associated Press, might be a bit underrated.

“We want to be special,” says sophomore guard Kevin Pangos. “We want to go places Gonzaga teams haven’t been, do some things maybe the greatest teams (here) accomplished. That’s what we want to be compared to.”

Gonzaga hasn’t been to the Sweet 16 since 2009. The past three seasons, it won NCAA tournament openers in impressive fashion, then lost the next game — last season in a rugged, down-to-the-wire finish against Ohio State.

That team went 26-7 and had an 11-year run of West Coast Conference championships snapped by Saint Mary’s.

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The only significant loss from that squad is center Robert Sacre, an imposing defensive force. His successors up front are a promising 7-foot-1 center from Poland, Przemek Karnowski, and a returning 7-foot junior, Kelly Olynyk.

But the biggest difference with this team is that for first time in several years, it returns a backcourt without serious limitations or inexperience.

Pangos and Gary Bell, the sophomore from Kentridge High, had breakout seasons as freshmen, and if the upward trend continues, this could be one of the nation’s better backcourts.

A year ago, they combined to shoot .428 on three-pointers, .804 on free throws and compiled a 1.57 assist-turnover ratio. Bell believes there’s more out there.

“I want to get more steals, more deflections, try to be the WCC defensive player of the year,” he said.

If Bell and Pangos are everything advertised, or possibly more, the season could hinge on three other players:

• Elias Harris. Once, he seemed headed to the NBA after one year. Now, after an up-and-down career, he’s a senior who can be dynamic, coming off a season in which he averaged 13.1 points and 8.5 rebounds.

“The key for me is to be consistent with my effort,” said Harris. “To give that extra 10, 20 percent. That can be a couple more run-outs, a couple more rebounds, a couple of defensive stops, to take a charge.”

• Guy Landry Edi. The 6-foot-6 native of the Ivory Coast comes off a debut junior season (he played two seasons at Midland College in Texas) where he was a modest offensive force. He’s a superior athlete who could help Gonzaga match up at the small forward spot against big-time opposition.

• Olynyk. Most preseason outlooks have simply forgotten the Canadian after he had a spotty sophomore season, then redshirted last year. Now he’s added some bulk and should be better equipped to play inside. Olynyk, however, must sit out a three-game suspension for a violation of the GU student code of conduct.

Olynyk seems more natural as a face-the-basket player than a post man, but coach Mark Few says he’s “getting better” on the low block and “doesn’t mind contact at all. And he has a phenomenal feel for the game.”

While the Zags seem to have more potential for scoring inside with their big men than last year, it’s a matter of debate how they’ll fare at defending the post, something they didn’t have to worry about with Sacre.

“All you’ve got to do is look at what (Jared) Sullinger did,” Few said, talking about the skilled Ohio State big man in the NCAA third round last year. “He hit jumpers on us. Rob nullified his post game.”

Karnowski’s progress will be worth watching. He picked Gonzaga over California and was approached by other premier programs like Duke. Few calls his passing skills “phenomenal — he’s one of the best passers we’ve ever had at a big spot.” However, partly because of the wider European lane, he’s inexperienced at staples of the U.S. game like post positioning and interior defense.

But communication isn’t a problem, as it has sometimes been at Gonzaga with Europeans lacking accomplished English skills.

“He’s a very quick learner; he reminds me of Ronny (Turiaf) in that regard,” Few said, referring to the Frenchman who played at GU from 2001-2005. “The kids that are able to speak multiple languages are very quick at picking up things.”

Gonzaga was a runaway media pick to win the WCC this season, and if that happens, it would mean a 15th straight berth in the NCAA tournament. But the Zags want a lot more, as do their fans.

“It’s exciting to hear that other people see big things in us,” Harris said. “But at the end of the day, if we don’t do what we’re supposed to do in practice, we can get beat by anybody.”

“Anybody” is going to have to go out and prove it.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

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