It is difficult to examine this Gonzaga Bulldogs men’s basketball team, seeded No. 2 in the South region of the NCAA tournament and slated for a 6:50 p.m. opening-round tipoff on Friday against 15th-seed North Dakota State, and not wonder how closely their fortunes resemble the Gonzaga squad that tore through the West Coast Conference two seasons ago.
They have the same record entering the NCAA tourney (32-2). They each ran away with the WCC regular-season championship (with a 17-1 record this year, and a 16-0 mark two years ago), won the WCC tournament championship, lost once at home, and lost once on the road, in a close game, to a quality opponent (13th-ranked Butler in 2012-13, 3rd-ranked Arizona this season).
The two-years-ago Bulldogs ranked No. 1 in both major polls coming into the tourney. This year’s team, currently ranked 7th, spent almost all of the season in the top 10 and peaked at No. 2 in early February.
But there is a looming, ever-important distinction this year’s team would rather not share with the highly successful crew of 2012-13.
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When March arrived, those Bulldogs lost in the round of 32. Just like they did last year. And just like they did in the three seasons prior to their ascension to No. 1.
So Friday’s matchup at KeyArena against NDSU, champions of the Summit League, is likely not what most riles the nerves of Gonzaga supporters. It’s that second-round game — third round, technically, for the heretics who prefer official NCAA parlance — that has most troubled coach Mark Few and the perennial WCC frontrunners.
“I think there’s definite similarities, just with the way the season’s gone, and the guys on the team are really deep, like we were that year,” said senior point guard Kevin Pangos, who was a sophomore the last time Gonzaga began the NCAA tournament as a highly-seeded favorite. “The difference, I think, is that we’ve been through it once. There’s about three, four, five of us that have been through it before, so I think that can only benefit us. That’s why I’m looking forward to this year, going into it.”
Gary Bell Jr., another senior, has particularly painful memories of the 76-70 loss to 9th-seeded Wichita State that ended their season in 2013. The 6-foot-2 product of Kentridge High injured his ankle and missed the entire second half of that game, watching helplessly as the Shockers shot 3-pointers far better than their season average.
He’s healthy now. And he says the Bulldogs possess a better balance of interior and perimeter talent than they did two years ago, when Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris anchored the post, but scoring by guards was infrequent. The addition this season of senior guard Byron Wesley, a transfer from USC, didn’t hurt.
“I think our records are pretty much the same, with only two losses,” Bell said, recalling his sophomore year. “But I feel like this team, we’re a little more balanced, as far as inside and out, with Wes being an addition. That’s a big role that we didn’t have at the time (that) year.”
Inside: 6-foot-10 junior Kyle Wiltjer, the team’s leading scorer at 16.7 points per game; 7-foot-1 junior Przemek Karnowski, another double-digit scorer; and freshman forward Domantas Sabonis, son of former Portland Trailblazers star Aryvdas, good for 9.5 points and 6.9 rebounds per game — and he doesn’t even start. Also of note: NDSU starts just one player taller than 6-6 — junior forward Chris Kading — and he’s only 6-8.
Such paint production is a big reason why Gonzaga leads the nation in field-goal percentage at 52.4.
“We hope our size is an advantage every game we go into,” Few said. “There aren’t many teams that are as big as us. We have to use it to our advantage. … It’s not just North Dakota State, but pretty much anybody we play — it kind of starts with the bigs, and we go from there.”
But their guards are a little more seasoned this time around. There’s Pangos, GU’s second-leading scorer and a 44.4 percent 3-point shooter; Bell, a stout defender who knocks down open jumpers; and Wesley, perhaps the missing piece, a scoring guard who left USC for exactly the kind of opportunity he now sees before him.
But a loss in Seattle would, on some level, render this season a disappointment.
“For me, Kev, or Byron too —– we’ve never been past the first weekend,” Bell said. “We’ve won a lot of games. We’ve accomplished a lot, been No. 1 and stuff. We just want to get past this first weekend and the first step is beating North Dakota State, and that’s our mindset right now.”
Their path to a potential Sweet 16 appearance — which would be their first since 2009 — appears favorable. Win Friday, and the Bulldogs will face a seemingly manageable matchup against either 7th-seed Iowa or 10th-seed Davidson. Win that, and they would face the winner of Saturday’s game between 11th-seed UCLA and 14th-seed Alabama-Birmingham.
Speculation, though, is for media and average-Joe bracketologists. And after second-round failures each of the last five years — as an 11-seed, a 1-seed, whatever — Gonzaga’s hesitance to inspect the future is likely at an all-time high.
“You cannot think ahead — ‘What’s going to happen if we win this, or if we win two more?’ You cannot ask those questions,” Karnowski said. “All that should be on your mind right now, is ‘You’ve got to play tomorrow,’ and tomorrow is the game. If you play bad, maybe you won’t play a game on Sunday.”