The Gonzaga Bulldogs waited so long to see their name to pop up on the television screen on Selection Sunday that junior center Robert Sacre had to do a quick fact check.
“I think we were the last one listed,” Sacre said. “I started thinking, ‘Did we actually win the WCC? Are we in? We are, right?’ ”
Turns out it was worth the wait. The West Coast Conference tournament champion Bulldogs (24-9) seemed OK with their seed (No. 11), fine with their opponent (No. 6 St. John’s) and ecstatic about the location (the Pepsi Center in Denver at approximately 6:45 Pacific time Thursday).
“About two hours (by airplane),” sophomore forward Elias Harris said with a grin. “I’m excited to be that close to home, especially after going to Buffalo (for last year’s NCAA tournament).”
The pairing means Gonzaga head coach Mark Few will run into longtime coaching buddy Steve Lavin, who orchestrated a remarkable turnaround at St. John’s in his first season. The Red Storm (21-11 overall) were 12-6 in the rugged Big East, tied for third with Syracuse and Louisville.
St. John’s, ranked 17th in the latest Associated Press poll, was eliminated from the Big East tournament by Syracuse 79-73 in the quarterfinals. The Red Storm returned to the rankings for the first time since 2001, they won 20 games for the first time since 2003 and they’re back in the NCAAs for the first time since 2002 (which they later vacated because of NCAA violations).
“We were all assistants on the West Coast trying to find our way and we’d all end up at the same gyms, Ray (Giacoletti), Dan (Monson), myself, ‘Lav,’ Mark Turgeon (now at Texas A&M),” said Few, who has guided Gonzaga to 13 straight NCAA tournaments. “Everybody who knows Steve is very happy for him. He’s truly one of the good guys in the profession. I was one of the guys trying to talk him out of the profession because I thought he was phenomenal on television.”
Lavin has attended a couple of Mark and Marcy Few’s Coaches vs. Cancer events in Spokane. As an ESPN analyst, Lavin worked numerous Gonzaga games in the WCC before he accepted the St. John’s job.
St. John’s will be playing in its 27th NCAA tournament. Only 17 programs have more NCAA appearances and only 33 have more NCAA wins. St. John’s reached the NCAA final in 1952, the Final Four in 1985 and the Elite Eight in 1999.
“Chris Mullin,” GU senior guard Steven Gray said. “That’s the one Johnnie I remember.”
“Ron Artest,” said Harris, who knew of St. John’s tradition even as a youngster growing up in Germany. “I’ve heard a lot about their program. Artest, I saw him on ESPN Classic.”
The Red Storm lost to Saint Mary’s in Moraga in mid-November. They lost five of six in January but responded by winning 9 of 11, including victories over Duke, Pitt, Connecticut, Cincinnati, Marquette and Villanova.
“If it’s a Big East team, you know they’re going to be tough, very physical and baskets will be hard to come by,” Few said. “They have nine seniors that are hungry. I don’t think they’ve played in the tournament before so this is their chance. They’ve been very resilient, being able to come back and win close games.”
Thursday’s winner will face the winner of No. 3 BYU-No. 14 Wofford in the Southeast Region.
The Red Storm lost senior D.J. Kennedy to a torn ACL early in the first half of the tournament game against Syracuse. Kennedy is the Red Storm’s leading rebounder (11th in school history) and third leading scorer (12th in school history).
Senior guard Dwight Hardy averages a team-high 18 points.
• Gonzaga freshman forward Sam Dower, who left with an eye injury late in the WCC title game victory over Saint Mary’s, will be wearing protective goggles when he returns to practice today. GU took two days off last week before returning to drills Thursday.
“I had two small tears in my retina,” Dower said. “I had to get a quick laser procedure the day we got back (Tuesday). My vision is fine and I don’t have any limitations.”