SALT LAKE CITY – The Southern Jaguars have this assignment today: Beat the top-ranked team in the country to keep your season alive.
Pull off the biggest upset in school history.
Pull off the biggest upset in the history of the NCAA tournament.
No matter, the Jaguars say. When Southern and Gonzaga representatives met with the media Wednesday at EnergySolutions Arena – located on John Stockton Drive, a tribute to the former Utah Jazz star from Gonzaga – the 16th-seeded Jaguars balked at being identified as underdogs for their NCAA tournament opener against top-seeded Gonzaga (1:10 p.m., TBS).
“We don’t look really at it as (being) the underdog,” Southern coach Roman Banks said. “We understand as it relates to how people look at the game, how ‘experts’ judge the game.
“But we talk in our locker room it could be the (Los Angeles) Lakers you’re playing. We want to play a certain way. If we play a certain way and compete a certain way, then we can obviously win a ballgame.”
The Jaguars (23-9) came into the week ranked 13th in the nation in scoring defense and second in field-goal-defense percentage.
Gonzaga (31-2) was 11th in scoring and third in field-goal-shooting percentage, and national player of the year finalist Kelly Olynyk leads a far bigger and deeper front line than Southern can muster.
“It’s not our offense that got us here,” Jaguars point guard Jameel Grace said. “I think we play great defense.”
Olynyk agreed, saying, “They’re a great defensive team. They dictate where they want you to shoot the ball instead of giving you free range to do what you want.”
The Bulldogs talk about Southern’s frequent attempts to slow down games, but Grace said, “It’s going to be an up-tempo game, and that’s our style of basketball. So let the best man win.”
Gonzaga’s top two scorers are forwards Olynyk (17.5 points a game) and Elias Harris (14.9). Southern’s top two scorers are guards Derick Beltran (15.9) and Malcolm Miller (15.8), the first player off the bench.
“We know they have a lot of bigs,” Southern center Brandon Moore said. “We basically only have, like, two. We know we really have to focus on boxing out.”
The Jaguars have size and talent on the perimeter. Banks has labeled Southern’s backcourt “one of the better” ones in college basketball.
“I believe our guards are better than their guards,” Moore said.
“They’re a very good ballclub, and their bigs look really good,” said the 6-foot-6 Miller. “I think we match up well with them guard-wise.”
Gonzaga point guard Kevin Pangos said Southern has “tremendous players who are really, really good.”
But that might be a stretch.
The Jaguars finished second in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, a perennial contender for the weakest NCAA Division I basketball league. Southern earned the SWAC’s automatic bid in the NCAA tournament by posting an underwhelming 45-44 win over Prairie View A&M in the championship game of the conference tournament.
Late Wednesday, more than 4,000 tickets were available for the game. The 12-year-old arena seats nearly 20,000 for Jazz games. Gonzaga coach Mark Few is one of four finalists for the Naismith Award as men’s college basketball coach of the year. The others are Georgetown’s John Thompson III, Miami’s Jim Larranaga and St. Louis’ Jim Crews. Banks said it is “surreal” facing Gonzaga because he has often used the Bulldogs as an example of a well-built program when speaking to his players. That didn’t stop Banks and his players from saying “Gunn-ZAW-guh.” President Obama, filling out his bracket on ESPN, predicts Gonzaga will beat Southern and No. 8 seed Pittsburgh in Salt Lake City, then lose to No. 5 seed Wisconsin in a Sweet 16 game at Los Angeles’ Staples Center next Thursday.
Southern University (23-9) vs. Gonzaga (31-2)
Tipoff: 1:10 p.m., EnergySolutions Arena, Salt Lake City
TV: TNT. Radio: None
All-time series: Gonzaga leads, 1-0. The Bulldogs defeated Southern, 117-72, on Nov. 12, 2010, in Spokane.
Player Pos PPGRPGAPGFG%FT%
Jameel Grace PG 18.104.22.1689.8 69.8
Derick Beltran G15.9 4.51.539.9 79.7
Cameron Monroe G 22.214.171.124.7 53.3
Javan Mitchell F 126.96.36.1995.9 68.7
Brandon Moore C 188.8.131.527.7 73.1
Kevin Pangos PG 11.5 184.108.40.206 81.6
Gary Bell Jr. G 220.127.116.112.3 72.3
Mike HartG 18.104.22.168.6 65.0
Elias Harris F 14.9 7.41.051.7 76.6
Kelly Olynyk F 17.5 7.21.765.2 78.5
Scouting report: The top-seeded Bulldogs are 22-point favorites in the NCAA tournament West Region opener for both teams. The 16th-seeded Jaguars, from Baton Rouge, La., stress defense and often control the tempo of games. The Bulldogs pride themselves on adapting to different styles of play, but they prefer to push the pace. Southern coach Roman Banks says his backcourt is “one of the better” ones in college basketball, but Gonzaga guards Hart and Bell are marvelous defenders, and the Bulldogs have a decided advantage in size and skill down low. The Zags need to keep an eye on Southern sixth man Malcolm Miller (15.8 ppg), who came into the week ranked third in NCAA Division I with 46.0 percent shooting on 3-pointers. Southern’s strength of schedule ranks last in the nation, but it’s worth noting that the Jaguars started the week ranked second in field-goal percentage defense (36.5), third in 3-point percentage defense (28.4) and 13th in points allowed (57.1). Gonzaga counters with an offense ranked 11th in scoring (77.6), and the Zags were third in field-goal shooting percentage (50.4) and first in scoring margin (18.2).
Next: The Gonzaga-Southern winner plays Saturday in Salt Lake City at a time to be determined against the winner of Thursday’s game between No. 8 seed Pittsburgh (24-8) and No. 9 seed Wichita State (26-8).Howie Stalwick, contributing writer