by HOWIE STALWICK & r & & r & & lt;span class="dropcap" & G & lt;/span & ONZAGA BULLDOGS & r & & lt;Br & PREDICTED FINISH: first in WCC (coaches poll)

2007-08 RECORD: 25-8 overall, 11-3 West Coast Conference (first); lost in first round of NCAA Tournament

COACH: Mark Few (236-60, 10th year)

OPENER: Montana State-Billings at GU, Saturday, 4 pm (KHQ 6, KGA 1510)

OUTLOOK: In preseason national polls, the Zags came in fourth with Sporting News magazine, 10th with the Associated Press (media) and 11th with USA Today (coaches). The Bulldogs are loaded with talented guards, and athletic post player Josh Heytvelt appears to have recovered from the foot and ankle problems that hampered him last year.

PLUS: Gonzaga returns its top four scorers and six of the top seven, led by junior guard Matt Bouldin (12.6 points per game). Honorable mention All-American Jeremy Pargo (12.1 points, 6.0 assists) considered turning pro, but is back for his senior year at point guard. Heytvelt (10.3 points, 4.9 rebounds) needs a big senior year to raise his stock with NBA scouts. Sophomore forward Austin Daye (10.5 points, 4.7 rebounds) is projected as the No. 8 pick in the 2010 NBA draft, according to Few says sophomore guard Steven Gray (8.1 points, 46 percent shooting on 3-pointers) is the team's best shooter and defender. Frosh point guard Demetri Goodson adds quickness and athleticism.

MINUS: Few might have to carve the basketball into five or six pieces to keep all the guards happy. Gonzaga continues to play a very challenging nonconference schedule, and Saint Mary's and San Diego figure to give the Zags all they can handle in the WCC. Rebounding and defense are question marks against top teams, and it won't be easy replacing the leadership of David Pendergraft and Abdullahi Kuso.

QUOTE: Coach Mark Few: "Having Jeremy come back was great news. He is the heart and soul of this team in so many ways."

BONUS: Over the past 10 seasons, the Bulldogs have played in 10 NCAA Tournaments, had nine players make All-America teams, placed three players on Academic All-American teams and had one former player named to the Academic Hall of Fame for college athletics (John Stockton in 2002).

& lt;span class="dropcap" & W & lt;/span & ASHINGTON STATE COUGARS

PREDICTED FINISH: sixth in Pac-10 (media poll)

2007-08 RECORD: 26-9 overall, 11-7 Pacific-10 Conference (tied for third); lost in third round (Sweet 16) of NCAA Tournament

COACH: Tony Bennett (52-17, third year)

OPENER: Mississippi Valley State at WSU, Saturday, 7 pm (KXLY 920)

OUTLOOK: The Cougars' roster consists of two returning starters, three other lettermen and 10 players who have yet to play a college game. The freshman class is the most highly regarded in school history, but a drop-off seems inevitable after two straight years of tying the school record for wins and finishing in the Top 25 nationally.

PLUS: Senior point guard Taylor Rochestie (10.4 points and 4.7 assists) is a heady floor leader. Senior center Aron Baynes (10.4 points and 6.0 rebounds) is a 6-foot-10, 250-pound Australian who loves to bang away in the paint. Senior forwards Daven Harmeling and Caleb Forrest are workaholic, team-first players who contribute to WSU's gritty defense. At least two freshmen, 6-8 power forward DeAngelo Casto from Spokane's Ferris High School and 6-6 shooting guard Klay Thompson, could be major contributors right away.

MINUS: It's never easy working in 10 newcomers, particularly on a team that stresses rotating and "help" techniques on defense. Baynes, the only true "wide body" on the team, has been prone to foul trouble. Baynes and Rochestie will draw more attention from opposing defenses now that Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver have graduated. Rochestie can handle playing tons of minutes, but no one has emerged as a sure-fire backup at the point.

QUOTE: Forward DeAngelo Casto: "I know for a fact -- you look at our seniors, they're not going to let us not go back to the NCAA Tournament."

BONUS: After drawing a record 120,000 fans at Friel Court last season, the Cougars have sold a record 4,300-plus season tickets.

& lt;span class="dropcap" & E & lt;/span & ASTERN WASHINGTON EAGLES

PREDICTED FINISH: seventh in Big Sky (coaches poll)

2007-08 RECORD: 11-19 overall, 6-10 Big Sky Conference (tie for seventh); no postseason

COACH: Kirk Earlywine (11-19, second year)

OPENER: At Illinois, Friday, 6:30 pm (KEYF 1050)

OUTLOOK: Earlywine was a summer hire last year, and defections left the Eagles with only nine players. "It took a little longer to type up the roster this year than it did a year ago," Earlywine cracked. It remains to be seen how many of those players can make up for the loss of the All-Big Sky forward Kellen Williams. The Eagles have a friendlier schedule than a year ago, when they played nine of their first 11 games on the road.

PLUS: Senior point guard Adris DeLeon is one of the most exciting players in the Big Sky, but he's also one of the most erratic. DeLeon scored 42 points against Northern Colorado last season and averaged 12.5 points, 3.1 assists and 2.7 turnovers. Junior center-forward Brandon Moore (7.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg) is a 6-9, 250-pound banger down low. Guards Trey Gross and Milan Stanojevic hit 37 percent of their 3-pointers.

MINUS: Gross (who considered transferring in the off-season) and Moore are the only non-transfers on a roster filled with first-year players who will need time to adjust to one another and/or Division I basketball. The Eagles must dramatically improve their field-goal shooting percentage (40.6) and road record (3-14) from a year ago.

QUOTE: Earlywine on 6-6 forward Chris Busch, who averaged 20.9 ppg and 8.9 rpg in junior college last season: "Chris has the potential to be an all conference-caliber player, but he must learn that basketball isn't played in a tuxedo. Chris has a tendency to play with too much finesse."

BONUS: DeLeon, whose listed height of 5-11 might be a bit on the generous side, never played high school basketball. Born in the Dominican Republic, he moved to the Bronx when he was 9 and learned to play the game on the playgrounds before playing at two junior colleges.

& lt;span class="dropcap" & I & lt;/span & DAHO VANDALS

PREDICTED FINISH: ninth (last) in WAC (coaches poll)

2007-08 RECORD: 8-21 overall, 5-11 Western Athletic Conference (tied for sixth)

COACH: Don Verlin (0-0, first year)

OPENER: Evergreen State at UI, Friday, 7:05 pm (KVNI 1080)

OUTLOOK: Another year, another coach, another mass invasion of junior college transfers. Verlin, the longtime Utah State assistant, landed his first head-coaching job at age 43. It remains to be seen whether he should be congratulated or mourned, since the Vandals lost the four leading scorers off the ninth-straight Idaho team to post a losing record. Two of Idaho's top players, Jordan Brooks and Mike Hall, followed ex-Vandal coach George Pfeifer to NCAA Division II Montana State-Billings after Pfeifer was fired and Verlin gave the boot to Brooks and Hall. Former Fresno State head coach Ray Lopes (fired for NCAA recruiting violations) came on board as an assistant coach, but ex-Eastern Washington head coach Mike Burns spent only a short time at Idaho before taking another assistant's job at San Diego.

PLUS: Former North Idaho College guard Mac Hopson, who was a solid reserve on Washington State's NCAA Tournament team in 2006-07, is eligible after sitting out last season. Hopson is the son of Phil Hopson, who starred on Don Monson's great Idaho teams. Luciano De Souza, a 6-7 forward from Brazil, averaged 10.5 points for the national junior college champions of South Plains (Texas) last season.

MINUS: The Vandals will have a hard enough time learning everyone's names, never mind learning plays. Verlin has a reputation as an offensive guru, but the Vandals lost most of the offensive talent from a team that shot just 42.4 percent from the field and averaged only 64.8 points per game.

QUOTE: Verlin on 6-6 JC transfer Brandon Wiley: "He is a winner ... he is a great young man and will provide an immediate impact on the program."

BONUS: The Vandals snapped a 27-game road losing streak last year, but why would they want to come home? After all, Idaho's biggest home crowd last season was 1,817 in the cavernous Kibbie Dome.

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