SPOKANE, Wash. — The next time Steven Gray of No. 12 Gonzaga flops when nudged by an opponent, he might credibly be accused of acting.
Gray played the part of Tybalt in a recent campus production of "Romeo and Juliet." His character is killed by Romeo.
"I make it right past intermission and then I'm gone," Gray said.
The senior guard better last longer than intermission in basketball games, coach Mark Few said. Gray averaged 13.6 points as one of four returning starters for a Gonzaga team that went 27-7 last year, 12-2 in the West Coast Conference, and lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Few said Gray, the only senior, must provide more leadership this year as the Zags seek a 13th consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament.
"We need a strong senior season from Steven," Few said. "He's not a vocal leader, but he has the respect of his teammates."
The Bulldogs lost leading scorer Matt Bouldin and his 15 points per game to graduation. But they return Elias Harris (14.9 points, 7 rebounds), Robert Sacre (10 points, 5 rebounds) and point guard Demetri Goodson (6.4 points).
Sacre is predicting no drop-off for a program that has won 10 straight WCC titles.
"We're just as strong, and just as good and close a unit as ever before," said Sacre, a 7-footer who had 65 blocked shots.
"Rob might be the most improved player on the team if you consider the progress he's made since his freshman year," Few said.
Sacre will have an early highlight when Southern comes to town for the season opener on Friday. The athletic director at Southern is his father, Greg LaFleur.
"People are making it out as a big rivalry game between me and my dad," Sacre said. "It's Jags versus Zags. Let's have fun."
Point guard, long a position of strength for the Bulldogs, is something of a question mark. Goodson, a junior, averaged just 1.8 assists per game, and may be challenged for playing time by junior college transfer Marquise Carter.
"We're not going to announce that somebody is going to play 40 minutes," Few said. "It's a position that will be shared by multiple people."
Harris had one of the best freshmen seasons in Bulldog history, shooting 54 percent from the field. He pulled down 16 rebounds against Illinois.
"He has the size to bang inside and the finesse to play outside," Few said. "He's stronger than he was last year so he will be even more of a force under the basket."
The only other experienced returning players are 7-footer Kelly Olynyk and Mangisto Arop. Olynyk grew an inch and added 25 pounds over the summer.
The Zags also hope to get minutes out of redshirt freshman Sam Dower, a 6-foot-9 left-handed forward.
Another tough schedule faces the Bulldogs, with non-conference games against No. 25 San Diego State, No. 3 Kansas State, No. 13 Illinois, Notre Dame, No. 16 Baylor, Xavier, Oklahoma State, Wake Forest and No. 19 Memphis.
"That's a lot of tough games," Few said. "There's a great opportunity there to accrue some really great wins that will help our resume in March."