Perhaps you’ve read this before: For the first time in school history, Gonzaga …
Well, here we go again. Roughly two weeks after earning the first No. 1 ranking in school history, the Bulldogs landed the program’s first No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament when the brackets were revealed Sunday.
Gonzaga (31-2) will face 16th-seeded Southern (23-9), champion of the Southwestern Athletic Conference, in a West Region opener Thursday in Salt Lake City. The teams squared off in the season opener two years ago with Gonzaga rolling to a 117-72 victory over the Jaguars at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
“It’s an honor to be the first team to do that here,” sophomore guard Kevin Pangos said of the No. 1 seed.
The Gonzaga-Southern winner advances to face the winner of No. 8 Pittsburgh-No. 9 Wichita State. Louisville was selected as the top overall No. 1 seed, followed by Kansas, Indiana and Gonzaga. Ohio State, which eliminated Gonzaga last year in the round of 32, is the West’s second seed. New Mexico is No. 3 and Kansas State, which lost to the Bulldogs 68-52 in Seattle in December, is No. 4.
“It’s just kind of an overwhelming feeling of ‘Wow,’” coach Mark Few said. “What a great accomplishment for this group of guys. It wasn’t a slam dunk. I think there were some other teams that were worthy.”
The Zags’ reward is staying fairly close to home and playing in a city familiar with Gonzaga’s program. GU legend and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer John Stockton, father of junior point guard David Stockton, played for the Utah Jazz from 1984-2003.
“I think we have a great fan base in that area, thanks to everything that John accomplished throughout his career,” said Few, whose 2004 team was seeded second. “He really put Gonzaga on the map in that area. Hopefully, they’ll lean our way. That’s probably one of the biggest things I care about is friends, family and fans if they want to they can get to these games.”
The Bulldogs are in the NCAAs for the 15th straight year, the fourth-longest active streak behind Kansas, Duke and Michigan State.
“That just tells you, sustained excellence,” said Few, in his 14th season as head coach. “Kentucky didn’t make it this year, a couple years ago North Carolina didn’t make it.
“This thing is a hard deal to make. I have so many people come up to me in the summer and fall and it’s, ‘Now, when’s March Madness?’ You’re like, ‘Hey, it’s not something (that’s a given).’”
When the Zags and Jags clashed two years ago, the storyline centered on GU center Robert Sacre and his father, Greg LaFleur, who was Southern’s athletic director at the time. Elias Harris, one of five current Zags to play against Southern, remembered making a spin move and a dunk and vaguely recalled going against Madut Bol, son of former NBA center Manute Bol, who died in June, 2010. Madut Bol led Southern with 12 points.
One connection this time around is that Gary Bell Jr.’s father is a Baton Rouge native and attended Southern.
“I knew who they were when their name popped up on the (television) screen,” Bell said. “I don’t think my dad played there. He ended up leaving school to go into the Navy. All of my dad’s side of the family is down there, grandma, grandpa, Dad’s sister. I’m getting a lot of text messages.”
Southern, under second-year coach Roman Banks, was ineligible for the postseason last year because of APR penalties. The Jaguars finished second this year in the SWAC regular season behind Texas Southern, which was ineligible for the SWAC Tournament because of APR penalties. The Jaguars edged Prairie View 45-44 for the SWAC title.