By Peter Tormey
SPOKANE, Wash. — The No. 1-ranked Gonzaga University Bulldogs (31-2) earned the top seed in the West Region of the NCAA Tournament today, and will take on No. 16-seed Southern University (23-9) on Thursday in Salt Lake City. In a season of firsts, this marks the Zags’ first No. 1 ranking in the polls, their first No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and their first 30-win season.
Gonzaga takes on Southern in a second-round game at 1:10 p.m. (PDT) at EnergySolutions Arena. The winner advances to play on Saturday against the winner of Thursday’s Pittsburgh vs. Wichita State game (TBA).
Zags Remain No. 1 in Both Polls
For the third consecutive week, the Zags remained No. 1 in the nation in the final Top 25 Associated Press and USA Today coaches’ polls of the season released Monday; Gonzaga received 45 first-place votes in the AP poll, off from 54 the week prior, and 30 of 31 first-place votes in the USA Today poll. Gonzaga is the first team from a non-Bowl Championship Series conference to finish No. 1 in the final poll since Massachusetts of the Atlantic 10 in 1996. The Bulldogs routed Saint Mary’s 65-51 on March 11 to capture the West Coast Conference Tournament Championship in Las Vegas — earning the WCC’s automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament. It’s Gonzaga’s 15th-consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament.
The Southern Jaguars beat Prairie View on Saturday to earn the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament championship and the league’s automatic NCAA berth. Southern is located in Baton Rouge, La.
Gonzaga all-West Coast Conference junior forward Kelly Olynyk, named to the Sporting News College Basketball All-America first team, said the Bulldogs are excited but not overly so.
“If you’re not excited for this, then something is wrong with you, I guess you could say,” Olynyk said. “I think we still want to make sure we’re being ourselves and playing our brand of basketball.”
Coach Mark Few called becoming the No. 1 seed in the West an “overwhelming” feeling and said he and the Zags felt honored.
“Wow, what a great accomplishment for this group of guys,” Few said in comments at the McCarthey Athletic Center after the selection. “Because it was not a slam dunk and you know I think there were some other teams out there that were certainly worthy.”
While he cautions players not to put too much stock into what others say about them, Few said earning the No. 1 seed is significant.
“Every once in a while it’s kind of nice to take a step back and say, ‘hey, that’s something that they think enough of you to make you a No. 1 seed,'” Few said.
Asked if being the top seed might be a distraction, Few said the Bulldogs have dealt well with being a favorite all season.
“I mean in every single situation we’ve been in, even in what you’d call our most high-profile games, we’ve been the highest-rated team in that game. They’ve handled that masterfully thus far,” Few said. “They’re a very even-keeled group and I’d be shocked if they didn’t’ handle this the same way.”
Gonzaga beat Southern 117-72 on Nov. 12, 2010, in the McCarthey Athletic Center, but Few said the Southern team the Zags will face Thursday will, of course, be completely different.
“It’s a different coach now, so a totally different team and totally different style, and for the most part, totally different players,” Few said, adding he believes Southern likes to play tough defense and keep the score down.
“They, based on information we have so far, are a real possession-by-possession team,” he said. “They’ve got 23 wins and beat Texas A & M at Texas A & M. It will definitely be a team that has our attention that we’ve got to get prepared for.”
As in all NCAA Tournaments, teams must earn their victories, Few said.
“Like I’ve been saying for the last three weeks, everybody’s going to be on edge this first weekend, nobody gets a free pass through this first weekend,” he said. “You’re going to have to earn your way through it. We fully expect that starting with Southern.”
Few said the Zags have a solid fan base in the Salt Lake City area, thanks to Gonzaga alumnus John Stockton’s NBA Hall-of-Fame career with the Utah Jazz.
“Thanks to everything that John accomplished throughout his career, he really put Gonzaga on the map down in that area,” Few said. “So, hopefully they will lean our way.”
All-session and single-session tickets are available at the EnergySolutions Arena box office. Fans can call 800-888-8499. For complete tournament information, including a live bracket and helpful fan links, go to www.utahutes.com/ncaa.