Spokane, WA (Sports Network) - The 21st-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs tip off the 2012-13 season in the friendly confines of the McCarthey Athletic Center tonight, as they host the Big Sky Conference's Southern Utah Thunderbirds.
Southern Utah finished last season 14-17 overall and 8-10 in Summit League play before migrating to the Big Sky in the off-season. The new conference is not the only change the program experienced, as Nick Robinson will be making his head coaching debut tonight as he fills the shoes of the retired Roger Reid. Robinson graduated from Stanford in 2005 after a stellar collegiate career. He has spent the past three seasons on the LSU staff as an assistant.
Gonzaga looks to continue its impressive run as one of the nation's top mid- major programs under Mark Few. The Bulldogs have reached the NCAA Tournament in each of the past 14 seasons, and reached the West Coast Conference Tournament championship game in each of the past 16 seasons. Few's squad lost to its WCC rival in the league title tilt last year and lost a tough matchup to Ohio State in the third round of the NCAA Tournament.
This will be just the third meeting between these schools, and the series is tied, 1-1. Gonzaga suffered a 71-47 loss to SUU on Nov. 3, 1996, which was the most recent encounter.
Robinson will turn to returning senior starters Jackson Stevenett and Damon Heuir for leadership this year. Stevenett is a 6-4 forward and a Second-Team All-Summit League honoree from a season ago, and he led SUU in both scoring (14.1 ppg) and rebounding (5.7 rpg). A few new faces will be in the rotation for the Thunderbirds this winter, as Jayson Cheesman (6-11, 250) provides a big frame and will help on the boards, while Jared Jeffery could become a starter after playing 23 games as a reserve last season. Jordan Johnson is the team's best defensive player and should only improve under the defensive- minded Robinson.
Gonzaga will be pushed by its star-laden backcourt which features super sophomore Kevin Pangos. The Bulldogs' second-year point guard is a deadly shooter (13.6 ppg) and he also knows when to distribute the ball (3.4 apg). He is backed up by David Stockton, son of former Utah Jazz star John Stockton. Gary Bell Jr. is an excellent off-guard with ability at both ends of the floor. The Zags will be playing their first game without the bruising Robert Sacre in the middle, but Elias Harris (13.1 ppg, 8.5 rpg) and Sam Dower (8.3 ppg) will have no problem providing the Thunderbirds with plenty of problems inside.