No. 1 Gonzaga facing high expectations as program evolves; 4 NCAA games in SLC

Thursday , March 16, 2017 - 12:01 AM

By KAREEM COPELAND, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — There’s a different feel around Gonzaga these days as the program has evolved from a little known mid-major to a title contender.

The Bulldogs enter the NCAA Tournament with the No. 1 seed in the West and just one loss. They’ve completed the best regular season in school history with what may be the best team the program has put together.

“We came in (years ago), we had guns blazing, nothing to lose,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said Wednesday. “Especially that first run to the Elite Eight. It was all new to us. And we were excited and giddy and felt like we were playing with house money.

“Now it’s more measured, leveled and we know we’ve got a job to do. We’ve got to take care of that job.”

With success comes expectations and that’s where the Gonzaga program is now. Point guard Nigel Williams-Goss said the team hasn’t felt the pressure to live up to the hype. The Bulldogs reached No. 1 in the rankings before their only loss of the season to BYU.

“It’s not one of those things we’re looking (like) we’re the big dog now,” Gonzaga guard Jordan Mathews said. “That chip is still the same.”

Gonzaga faces No. 16 seed South Dakota, which won the Summit League Tournament to earn the bid. The Jackrabbits see Gonzaga as the model to strive for.

“I don’t know if you can consider them a mid-major program anymore,” South Dakota coach T.J. Otzelberger said. “This is a program that, 20 years ago, was in a spot where they were trying to build something special. And from that vantage point, that’s what we hope to do with the Jackrabbits.”

Salt Lake City hosts four first-round games Thursday at Vivint SmartHome Arena:

No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 16 South Dakota State, noon MST

No. 8 Northwestern vs. No. 9 Vanderbilt, 2:30 p.m.

No. 7 St. Mary’s vs. No. 10 VCU, 5:20 p.m.

No. 2 Arizona vs. No. 15 North Dakota, 7:50 p.m.

A glimpse of the rest of Thursday’s West Region games:

REMEMBER ME: No. 2 seed Arizona really began to hit its stride with the return of Allonzo Trier in late January. Trier served a 19-game suspension for testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. Since his return, Trier has averaged 17.3 points, 5.0 rebounds and shot 47.5 percent from the floor and 41.4 percent from behind the arc.

“Allonzo is one of the best guards that are playing in this tournament,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “His numbers speak for themselves. ... His assists are up and defensively he’s given us a rock solid defensive player.

“It’s no coincidence that as he’s played his best, it’s brought out the best in our team, as well.”

IRISH HOME: Notre Dame should feel at home in Buffalo, a city with a large Irish population and renowned for its St. Patrick’s Day festivities. The fifth-seeded Fighting Irish (25-9) are the nation’s only team to have reached the Elite Eight in each of the past two seasons, and face a Princeton team (23-6) riding a 19-game winning streak, the second longest in the nation. Notre Dame is led by junior Bonzie Colson, the only ACC player averaging a double-double (17.5 points, 10.2 rebounds). The Tigers won the Ivy League’s inaugural championship tournament.

‘PRESS’ VIRGINIA: Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins has fond memories his past tournament visit to Buffalo, where the Mountaineers launched their run to reach the Final Four in 2010. It’s a better memory than last year, when third-seeded West Virginia lost to Stephen F. Austin in a first-round upset. The fourth-seeded Mountaineers (26-9) have already matched last year’s win total, but have stumbled in going 11-6 since Jan. 18. Bucknell (26-8) won its fifth Patriot League tournament title and is led by Nana Foulland, who has shot a combined 117 of 182 over his past 18 games.

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON: A pair of coaches’ sons will roam the sidelines when Northwestern and Vanderbilt tip off. Northwestern coach Chris Collins is the son of longtime NBA coach and TV analyst Doug Collins and Vanderbilt’s Bryce Drew played for his dad Homer Drew at Valparaiso. The two sons met in high school and have been friends for years.

“We’ve always kind of connected because we come from basketball families,” Collins said. “Our dads were coaches. We grew up in gyms and the game. We’ve always connected on that level and gotten along really well.”

BOUNCE BACK: The Xavier Musketeers slipped some toward the end of the regular season, but seemed to find their groove during the Big East Tournament. They won two games in the tournament, including a 62-57 win over Butler before falling to Creighton by three points in the semifinals. Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said watching Xavier in the tournament was like watching a different team than the one that lost six straight from Feb. 11 through March 1.

DUNK CITY?: Florida State got an interesting first-round matchup — a showdown against in-state opponent Florida Gulf Coast, the program that became better known as “Dunk City” during its surprising run to the Sweet 16 in 2013.

Worried? Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton says he’s not listening to much of the chatter about how his team is ripe for an upset.

“It really doesn’t matter,” Hamilton said. “When the ball is thrown up, that’s when you figure out what you’re capable of doing. That’s really the only thing we are concerned with.”

AP writers John Wawrow and Terrance Harris contributed to this report.

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