PORTLAND – Gonzaga has been down this road before. The 10th-ranked Bulldogs are facing a defensive-minded opponent that prefers to keep the score in the 50s or 60s.
Think Washington State, San Diego, Santa Clara.
Think Akron, which tried to slip comfortably into the underdog role for its first-round NCAA men’s basketball tournament matchup against the Bulldogs at 4:25 today at the Rose Garden. The winner advances in the South Region to face the winner of Illinois-Western Kentucky.
“For those fans of Akron, (after) 23 years of heartbreak, to finally make it back (into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1986), we just want to keep it going for their sake and ours as long as possible,” senior forward Nate Linhart said.
Gonzaga has some NCAA tournament heartbreak of its own it wants to rectify. The Bulldogs have dropped their past three NCAA games, including first-round exits the past two years. GU was seeded seventh and lost to No. 10 Davidson in the Wildcats’ home state of North Carolina last season. The year before, the Bulldogs overcame the suspension of Josh Heytvelt to make the NCAAs, but were quickly sent home by Indiana.
“It feels a lot better than the last two years,” senior forward Micah Downs said. “We’ve got everybody healthy and we have everyone playing really well. We finished conference out the way we wanted to and we’re in Portland, which is just a couple hours from Spokane. We’ve got a good seed (No. 4) and a good draw. We’re definitely excited about it.”
The Bulldogs (26-5) are favored by 12.5 points, the largest margin of the four No. 4 seeds, but head coach Mark Few found plenty to worry about with the 14th-seeded Zips (23-12).
“I don’t think in 20 years of watching tape I’ve seen a team that plays that hard,” Few said. “That’s going to be a real challenge – to match their intensity and ‘physicalness’ and how much energy they play with.”
Linhart said the Zips have no choice.
“Coach (Keith Dambrot) is constantly reminding us we’re not very skilled or talented,” said Linhart, glancing at Dambrot on his right. “So we have to find other ways to win. Playing hard goes hand in hand with that.”
The Bulldogs enter with a nine-game winning streak that includes flattening Santa Clara and Saint Mary’s by a combined 60 points at the WCC tournament.
Dambrot said his undersized club has little margin for error.
“The biggest thing is we have to make shots to win the game,” he said. “We have to defend like we’ve never defended before.”
Akron crowds passing lanes and forces an average of nearly 18 turnovers per game.
“They’re great at forcing turnovers, so we need to slow down and execute,” Bulldogs junior guard Matt Bouldin said. “I think they foul a lot, that’s what I’ve been told, so we need to be strong with the ball.”
Gonzaga was successful in speeding the tempo against slower-paced teams such as WSU, but it faces a slightly different challenge with the Zips.
“They want to push tempo on defense and slow it down on offense,” GU sophomore forward Austin Daye said.
Both teams hope to take advantage of matchups. Gonzaga frontcourt players often will be 3-4 inches taller than Akron’s, but the Zags will have to defend agile forwards.
“The thing that concerns me is they’re so big inside,” Akron forward Chris McKnight said. “We’ve faced big guys all year and rebounding definitely has been a factor for us. If we play like we did at the end of the year at the MAC tournament, that can all be nullified.”
Heytvelt said defense will be the key if Gonzaga wants to continue its roll from the WCC tournament.
“We’ve been doing a better job of getting down and guarding guys and not letting them get comfortable,” he said. “I have a lot more experience doing that, even from guarding Austin and Ira (Brown) at practice. We’re pretty solid, guarding small or big guys.”