Gonzaga loses some key seniors, including Kyle Wiltjer, and could lose big man Domantas Sabonis. But the Bulldogs will return some experience in the backcourt after a season of growing pains and a run to the Sweet 16.

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CHICAGO – Gonzaga guard Eric McClellan looked equal parts drained and dazed as he sat at his locker at the United Center on Friday night after Gonzaga’s Sweet 16 loss to Syracuse, trying to come to terms with the fact that the Zags’ season was over.

“I can’t even put it into words,” he said, when asked to describe his emotions. “More so, I just want to talk about how proud I am of these guys. Everything we’ve been through as a group, as a unit, we’ve all grown individually, not only as players, but as people as well.”

For Gonzaga’s three senior starters, McClellan, Kyle Wiltjer and Kyle Dranginis, the last-second defeat came as an abrupt and anticlimactic end to a season that had finally started to feel very special.

While every member of the Zags’ roster was arguably indispensable after Gonzaga lost center Przemek Karnowski to a season-ending back injury in December, this senior class, especially, was instrumental to a team that had to weather an unusual amount of adversity.

Dranginis, a fifth-year senior, lost his starting spot to Bryan Alberts for nine games midway through the season. But to his credit, he fought back to reclaim it and ended the year third only to Domantas Sabonis and Wiltjer with 161 rebounds.

McClellan, who was the team’s third-leading scorer at 10.7 points per game, will probably be best remembered by fans as the player who, when the season looked lost after the Senior Night defeat to Saint Mary’s, made a bold proclamation by promising the Zags would win the WCC championship.

But the most consistently productive force for the Zags this season was undoubtedly Wiltjer, who ended his career 19th on Gonzaga’s career scoring list, with 1,374 points.

Wiltjer and Sabonis fed off one another in the post, forming a formidable partnership that challenged every team they played. Sabonis had a breakout season that has resulted in his name being bandied around as a possible NBA draft pick.

The website DraftExpress.com lists Sabonis as a first-round selection in the draft – should he decide to leave school early.

But when asked about his future plans on Friday night, Sabonis seemed undecided. “I haven’t thought about that yet,” he said. “I’m not thinking about that now.”

Sabonis has till April 24 to decide if he wants to declare for the NBA draft, which will take place June 23. Whether he returns will have significant impact on the Zags’ plans for next year.

Karnowski is the other wild card as the Zags look toward next season. He played only five games before suffering a serious back injury that required surgery in December. He wasn’t cleared to start running until about 10 days ago.

The Polish big man said last week that he’s planning to apply to the NCAA for a medical waiver that would give him an extra year of eligibility, but regardless of whether his waiver is approved, he’s unsure if he’ll return for one more year at Gonzaga.

“I haven’t decided yet,” said Karnowski, who’s only a few credits shy of his degree in sports management. “It’s all about the follow-ups, and the doctors and how I respond. I want to see my options. Will I be able to be jumping and going full speed?

“If I only have a couple more years (to play basketball) I will probably go try and play pro.”

Karnowski said he’ll wait to see how two follow-up appointments in April and June go with his doctors before he makes a final decision.

Meanwhile, Gonzaga should enter next season with a full complement of experienced guards after a season of growing pains.

Josh Perkins and Silas Melson came of age in the final month of the season, and their maturation process was a significant part of the Zags’ postseason success.

Melson served as McClellan’s understudy for most of the season. He played so well in his sixth-man role against the Orange’s zone defense that Few kept McClellan on the bench for most of the second half.

Perkins averaged five assists and 8.3 points during the NCAA tournament, and under McClellan’s mentorship this season, he blossomed from precocious rookie into a steady presence at the point-guard position.

As reporters started to trickle out of the Zags’ locker room Friday night, Perkins and McClellan sat quietly together, heads down, arms around each other. Their last game together had just ended, and they both took the loss to Syracuse hard.

“We wouldn’t have been here without him,” McClellan said, referring to Perkins. “I’m biased, but I think he’s going to be the best point guard in the nation one day. He’s more than talented, he’s charismatic, he’s going to turn into a great leader. He’s got so much upside. I’m just so proud of him.

“My message to him is just to stay on the marathon, man, just keep his head up. Use this as a learning experience but don’t let this derail you from any of your work. Just continue to grow, man.”

What’s next for Gonzaga?
Gonzaga is losing three starters to graduation (Wiltjer, McClellan and Dranginis) and could lose a fourth if Sabonis elects to declare for the NBA draft. A look at how the Bulldogs’ starting five finished the season:
Player PPG Other key stat Comment
Kyle Wiltjer 20.4 6.3 rebounds per game Finishes career 19th on Gonzaga’s all-time scoring list.
Domantas Sabonis 17.6 11.8 RPG Had 23 double-doubles this year, but will he be back?
Eric McClellan 10.7 47.5 FG percentage Was steady force in backcourt, helped younger guards along.
Josh Perkins 10.1 146 assists Point guard found comfort zone late in the season.
Kyle Dranginis 6.5 110 assists Became a third dependable rebounder for Gonzaga.