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No. 7 Seed Bulldogs Hold Light Practice, Meet Press and Focus on Beating No. 2 Seed Ohio State Saturday

The No. 7 seed Bulldogs say they are ready for the formidable challenge of taking on No. 2 seed Ohio State Buckeyes on Saturday at the CONSOL Energy Center. (Above) the Zags take the court after a timeout in their victory over West Virginia on Thursday. Photo by Peter Tormey.

Tracking the Zags | NCAA Tournament
Third Round, East Region

Gonzaga vs. Ohio State Tips Off Approximately Noon PDT

By Peter Tormey
PITTSBURGH – The No. 7 seed Gonzaga Bulldogs had little time Friday to savor their 77-54 dismantling of No. 10 seed West Virginia in a second-round NCAA Tournament game Thursday before turning their focus to the No. 2 seed Ohio State Buckeyes, their opponent Saturday in a third-round game that tips off at approximately noon PDT in  CONSOL Energy Center.

Coach Mark Few, who is leading 26-6 Gonzaga to its 14th-consecutive NCAA Tournament, held a closed practice for the Zags today and the Zags met the media. The 28-7 Buckeyes, led by Coach Thad Matta, beat No. 15 seed Loyola Maryland 78-59 in Thursday’s late game here. The winner of the Zags-Buckeyes game advances to the regionals in Boston next week. This marks the first basketball meeting between Gonzaga and Ohio State.

Few said the Bulldogs will need to play as well as they did against the Mountaineers – or perhaps better – to beat the Buckeyes, who are No. 7 in the Associated Press and ESPN/USA Today Top 25 rankings this week.

“We know we’re going to play a great team, a team that’s definitely Final Four worthy,” Few said. “This is a really, really good team that I think a lot of people picked for the Final Four, to win a national championship.”

In front of the CONSOL Energy Center is a newly installed statue of NHL great Mario Lemieux, a longtime star of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Photo by Peter Tormey.

Few said the match-ups inside would be difficult for the Zags. The Buckeyes are led by 6-foot-9-inch, 280-pound sophomore forward Jared Sullinger, a pre-season All-American (AP, Sporting News, CBSSports.com, Blue Ribbon, Basketball Times, USBWA, ESPN.com) who is averaging 17.4 points and 9.3 rebounds a game this season. Six-foot-7 sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas isn’t far behind Sullinger, averaging 15.8 points and 5.2 rebounds a game. OSU’s 6-foot-6 senior guard William Buford is the Buckeyes’ third-leading scorer with 14.8 points per game this season while sophomore guard Aaron Craft averages 8.6 points a game.

In four postseason games this year – three in the Big 10 Tournament and OSU’s win over Loyola Maryland on Thursday, both Thomas and Sullinger are averaging more than 20 points a game. Thomas leads the Buckeyes with 21.5 points a game while Sullinger is averaging 21 points and 9.5 rebounds. Sullinger is making half his shots in postseason play (32-64) while draining 17 of 20 foul shots. Buford averages 12.3 points a game while Craft has 19 assists and 10 steals.

“We have good bigs, they have good bigs,” Few said. “As good as our guards have been this year, the two freshmen guards have been phenomenal when you factor in how many minutes we’ve played ’em, kind of how they’ve held up. But, I mean, the strength and the core of this team was built around our inside guys, Rob (Sacre), E (Elias Harris), and Sam (Dower) to a certain extent. Much like Ohio State.”

Sacre, a senior, said he feels fortunate to play Sullinger.

“He’s a great player,” Sacre said. “Luckily, our coaches have matched us up with some great big players in the past.

This past season, I’ve seen a lot of great big men. I know I have my hands full, but I’m excited for the task and it’s going to be a great game.”

Sacre said the Bulldogs will do everything they can to keep the ball away from Sullinger.

“You want to just limit his touches,” Sacre said. “He’s a great player, especially when he gets the ball. He likes to get the ball in deep. So you want to keep him from getting the ball in so deep near the basket and make sure you limit his touches. If he doesn’t get the ball, it’s harder for him to score.”

Zags’ freshman guard Kevin Pangos said he is looking forward to playing against Craft.

“I just do the same things as I’ve always done,” Pangos said. “Try to be aggressive, not be too passive, try to get the team to a steady offense. I’m looking forward to the challenge. He’s definitely known as a great defender, but I’m looking forward to it.”

Pangos said stopping Thomas will be one of the keys to a Zags’ victory.

“Yeah, you know, I think he’s a bit underrated. You don’t really notice his name all the time. He had something like 30 yesterday. He’s a guy that can score in many different ways. We definitely recognize that,” Pangos said.

Sacre said he wants to do whatever he can to ensure the Zags advance so he can continue to play with the Bulldogs.

“It’s an honor, you know. But I think I take great pride in that. I just want to make this season go longer than it needs to be, you know. I’m so proud to be with this team and I’m so proud to be with this great group of guys that I want it to go further. I really don’t think about it, about myself, I want it to be with the team.”

Once again, rebounding will be a key to the game, Sacre said.

“I think whoever wins the stats on the rebounding will most likely win the game,” he said. “I think all around they’re a great team. One through five, they’re a great team. Craft is a great player. He distributes well. Sullinger is a big body. They have scorers on the wings. It’s going to be a good task, a great challenge for us. I’m excited for the game. I know our guys are excited. We love these games.  This is what we came to Gonzaga for.”

Coach Few called Sacre a “once-in-a-lifetime personality” who has been a joy to coach.

“I said over and over again, he walks into our arena, I can hear from my office when he comes in. Every person he meets I think feels like they’re a friend of his. I mean, that’s a great gift to have, it truly is,” Few said. “He’s always been excited to be at Gonzaga. He loves Gonzaga. I don’t think he’s ever had a bad practice in five years. I mean, the guy just works and works and works and brings enthusiasm.”

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