03/08/2013 12:46 EST | Updated 05/08/2013 05:12 EDT

Pangos and Olynyk give No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs a distinctly Canadian look

VANCOUVER - Kevin Pangos hasn't had to worry about a sophomore jinx in his second year of major U.S. college basketball.

The 19-year-old Newmarket, Ont., native — dubbed by some observers as the next Steve Nash — has lived up to his status as a star in the making. In the process, the point guard has helped the Gonzaga Bulldogs earn top billing as the NCAA tournament approaches.

The Bulldogs earned the No. 1 NCAA men's ranking this week for the first time in the history of the Spokane, Wash., school. Gonzaga prevailed in both The Associated Press and USA Today polls over traditional powerhouses Indiana, Duke, Kansas and Georgetown.

Heading into this weekend's West Coast championships in Las Vegas, Pangos has helped the Bulldogs post a perfect 16-0 record in the West Coast Conference and 29-2 overall mark.

"For myself, last year was all brand new to me," said Pangos, who has started all 31 games. "I was just learning as I went along and this year, I felt that I approached the year understanding what it took, what I needed to do. ... So I felt like I could approach it better, and I trained well in the off-season and really added to my game.

"As a team, it’s almost the same thing. We started off with a lot more experience this year."

Pangos and third-year centre Kelly Olynyk of Kamloops, B.C., have given Gonzaga's starting five a distinctly Canadian look. It's rare for two Canadians to play on any U.S. college team together let alone start for a top-ranked squad.

"As a Canadian, I’m just so proud," said Pangos, who is averaging 11.7 points, 3.3 assists and 1.4 steals per game. "It’s great, me and (Olynyk) being on this stage, because it shows that basketball has grown (in Canada), and other Canadians can look up to us and hopefully one day, it can happen again."

Olynyk is a candidate for the U.S. college player of the year award. He earned West Coast Conference player of the year honours after averaging 17.7 points and 7.0 rebounds a game.

Olynyk has hit 189 of 283 field-goal attempts this season. His 66.8 percentage is ranked second in the nation.

"Kelly's had a phenomenal year, and it's such an efficient year," Gonzaga coach Mark Few told reporters this week. "That's probably the most impressive thing."

The strong showing came after Few made him a rare red-shirt in what would have been his actual third season, limiting his action to practices only. Few wanted the seven-footer to work on his body and his game — and Olynyk has not disappointed the coach.

"Obviously, he's really made huge strides both physically and mentally and skill-wise," said Few.

"(Last season) was tough on him," added Pangos. "He couldn’t play (games). He had to watch all the time. But at the same time, he had so much time to develop his game and his skills. So it helped him greatly this year."

Olynyk's new game includes a new look. He is sporting long hair because he only gets it cut when he is home in Kamloops, and has not spent much time there lately.

He has also emerged as Gonzaga's new team leader in place of Rob Sacre of North Vancouver, B.C., who has moved up to the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers.

"(Olynyk) has got that mentality that the troop needed," said Pangos. "He’s learned a lot. Also, I think he’s incorporated a lot of his own style. (Sacre) is a leader in his own way, and Rob was a great leader last year. But Kelly’s got a different style and a different approach. It’s just as effective, just in a different way.

"Rob’s really outgoing, and he’ll be really loud. He’ll be really outgoing and he’ll really bring energy to the team that way. But Kelly’s really smart, and can tell guys more tactical ideas."

Pangos has exhibited considerable court savvy himself, earning a spot on this year's All-WCC team. He has continued to excel after questioning his college choice because of often limited playing opportunities for freshmen.

"The stages that I’ve gone through along the way have (had) so many ups and downs," said Pangos.

"I’ve developed as both a player and a person through that entire process, going from just trying to get here and earn a spot, earn minutes, to then starting, trying to get as far as we could last year to this point — where now we’re one of the favourites instead of the underdogs."

Pangos has tried to remain honest by constantly working on his game. Last season, he excelled from long range, nailing nine three-pointers in only his second NCAA game, against Washington State.

This season, he has concentrated on creating more offence off the dribble.

"I always like to say that I’m always thankful, but I’m never satisfied and I want more because that’s always been the way I was brought up and the mindset I had," he said.

Pangos' father Bill, the longtime women's coach at York University, and his mother Patty, a former McMaster player, have fuelled his passion for the game. The youngster's future goals include a place on Canada's national team.

"I want to play (for Canada) as much I can," said Pangos. "I have so much pride in playing for my country. So whatever I could do to try and play, if I make the team, then I’d love to do that."

Pangos also hopes to play in the NBA one day. But first, there's an NCAA title to chase.

"We all believe in each other and our goal," he said. "So I think we’ve got a good shot."