As anticipated, the Gonzaga men’s basketball team got what it wanted Sunday. The NCAA selection committee made the Zags a No. 2 seed and placed them in Seattle’s KeyArena for their regional opener against the North Dakota State Bison.
Should the Zags advance — and, c’mon, of course they should — they will face the winner of a 7-10 matchup between Iowa and Davidson before the regional resumes the following week in Houston, where Iowa State and Duke loom as potential opponents.
There is no sure thing about any NCAA tournament, but when a 32-2 powerhouse learns the most imposing obstacles in its regional are Iowa State and Duke, that’s a Selection Sunday worthy of a thumbs up.
The committee hasn’t always been so generous to small Jesuit schools from Spokane. In 2010, the Zags were sent to Buffalo, where they ran into Syracuse, a No. 1 seed, in their second game. Beating Syracuse would have been a chore anywhere, but beating Syracuse in upstate New York? That would have been a miracle.
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Two years later, Gonzaga went to Pittsburgh and beat West Virginia, which has a substantial alumni base in the area, before drawing Ohio State, which also has a substantial alumni base in the area.
Compared with Gonzaga’s ill-fated matchups on the other side of the country, a South Region opener on the other side of the state is the equivalent of an alley-oop pass setting up a slam.
“You get down to this thing, you get one shot, and we’ve just got to play good,” coach Mark Few told the Westwood One radio network Sunday. “If we are playing really, really good, it makes us tough to beat because we do have a lot of answers at a lot of spots.
“But does your opponent do some things that drive you nuts? One year Wichita State hit (14) threes on us,” continued Few, referring to the 76-70 defeat that eliminated his top-seeded team in 2013. “The game before, I think they hit one or two out of 20. It comes down to situations like keeping people out of trouble, keeping healthy, getting some breaks from the officials.”
Gonzaga likely won’t need those kinds of breaks against North Dakota State, more known for its football program — the Bison, riding a 33-game winning streak, have been the reigning Football Championship Subdivision champions since 2011 — than for its success at basketball.
Then again, no kind of history is more relevant than recent history. Last year, North Dakota State went to Spokane as a No. 12 seed and stunned Oklahoma in overtime, thanks to the 28-point performance of guard Lawrence Alexander. He’s back, averaging 44 percent from 3-point territory.
Speaking of history: The last time Gonzaga was seeded second, in 2004, also was its last NCAA tournament appearance in KeyArena. A 76-49 clobbering of Valparaiso preceded a 91-72 blowout, but it was Nevada that supplied the air.
Ronny Turiaf picked up his fourth foul early in the second half, all five Wolf Pack starters scored in double figures, and when it was over, Adam Morrison described the humiliation in the perspective of a college kid.
“It feels as if someone took your life away almost,” Morrison said. “This is all we’ve got, this is all I’ve got — basketball. We can’t play anymore.”
Since that inexplicable cratering against Nevada, Gonzaga has realized every ambition except the most obvious: advancing to the Final Four for the first time.
“There’s been years where we were good enought to advance a long, long way, and we just didn’t get it done,” Few said Sunday. “This is one of those years we are good enough to advance a long ways.”
As for Gonzaga’s fellow guests at KeyArena, UC-Irvine, in the East Regional, looms as fan favorite. Friday will find the Anteaters, playing in an NCAA tournament for the first time, taking on Louisville, which is making its 41st appearance.
Count on Cardinals coach Rick Pitino to provide some fun commentary about a UC-Irvine frontcourt that includes 7-foot-6 center Mando Ndiaye and 7-2 forward Ioannis Dimakopoulos. Three other Anteaters, standing a mere 6-10, are relative midgets.
Northern Iowa and Wyoming, also assigned to the East, fill out the KeyArena field. Wyoming hasn’t been to the tournament in 13 years, and heaven help the broadcaster who mispronounces the last name of coach Larry Shyatt.
Northern Iowa’s tournament berth is its third in the last seven years. You might recall the Panthers’ epic upset of No. 1 overall seed Kansas in 2010, when Ali Farokhmanesh — pronounced “All-Eee” — converted the victorious 3-pointer.
With all due respect to Louisville, UC-Irvine, Wyoming and Northern Iowa, they’ll be reduced to undercards on Friday. The weekend is all about Gonzaga, and its very legitimate chance to use KeyArena as a springboard for a bigger stage under brighter lights.
If the Zags don’t continue on to Houston, there will be no excuses. The road is theirs.