PITTSBURGH – If it seems like the Gonzaga Bulldogs have been here before it’s because, well, they have.
In the 2011 NCAA tournament, No. 11-seeded Gonzaga dismantled No. 6 St. John’s by 15 only to get crushed by No. 3 BYU by 22 points. In 2010, the eighth-seeded Bulldogs shut down No. 9 Florida State, becoming the first team to shoot at least 50 percent against the Seminoles in 67 games, only to get squashed by No. 1 Syracuse in the next round by 22.
So here comes the seventh-seeded Bulldogs (26-6), fresh from a 77-54 rout over West Virginia, facing powerhouse No. 2 seed Ohio State (28-7) Saturday at Consol Energy Center in the third round, trying to find the formula for back-to-back success. Buckeyes’ fans were prominent in Thursday’s win over Loyola-Maryland and more figure to make the 185-mile drive from Columbus to snatch up tickets from departing Mountaineers’ followers.
“The last couple years we’ve had great first-round wins and the second game was lacking,” said junior forward Elias Harris. “It’s our mindset. We need to stay focused, tough and with the game plan.”
Counting a 21-point drubbing to eventual national champion North Carolina in 2009 Sweet Sixteen, Gonzaga has exited the last three tournaments with lopsided losses.
It was the first question posed to senior center Robert Sacre following Thursday’s win. “You don’t forget games like that (BYU). When you lose one, it’s heartbreaking. You take it with you the rest of your life.”
Head coach Mark Few had an eye on Saturday’s game shortly after beating West Virginia.
“We did a wonderful job of taking the scouting report and executing it,” Few said. “Now we have to do the same thing. They get it. They’re not satisfied.”
The Ohio State game plan centers on bulky center Jared Sullinger, a double-double machine who likes to operate in the low post. West Virginia had a similar interior presence in Kevin Jones, but Sullinger poses more problems and he has a better supporting cast. Deshaun Thomas struck for 31 points against Loyola-Maryland.
“If Jones was the best offensive rebounder in the country, Sullinger is right there and he’s 40 pounds heavier,” said Bulldogs assistant coach Ray Giacoletti, who helped compile the scouting report. “He wedges you out as well as anyone we’ve seen, but they have a big-time scorer (in William Buford) and Thomas can score. They have three guys that can score in a variety of ways and it’s not like the other two can’t – (Aaron) Craft and (Lenzelle) Smith Jr.”
Sacre will probably defend Sullinger, who was just 4 of 14 and missed a dunk versus Loyola-Maryland.
“I was so determined to make a quick move before the double-team came, I think that’s what made me mess up a couple of my shots,” Sullinger said. “I need to bounce back.”
There are several intriguing matchups: Sacre-Sullinger, Harris-Thomas, Kevin Pangos-Aaron Craft. Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. led Gonzaga’s early charge Thursday. Craft has 85 steals and was named the Big Ten’s defensive player of the year. Giacoletti emphasized that Craft does a tremendous job away from the ball.
“I’ll just try to do the same things I’ve always done, be aggressive, not be too passive, try to get the team into a steady offense,” Pangos said. “I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
Same goes for the Bulldogs in a third-round game.
“We have experience now and we don’t want to let up,” Sacre said. “This is going to be a true challenge, but I’m thinking it’s a great challenge for us. We’re hungry for it. This is what we wanted.”