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Gonzaga not taking Southern lightly in NCAA opener

Gonzaga guards Gary Bell, Jr., left, and Kevin Pangos take aim during Wednesday’s practice on the Energy Solutions Arena floor. (Dan Pelle)
Gonzaga guards Gary Bell, Jr., left, and Kevin Pangos take aim during Wednesday’s practice on the Energy Solutions Arena floor. (Dan Pelle)

SALT LAKE CITY – It’s a No. 1 seed versus a 16.

It’s a veteran Gonzaga roster stocked with players who have participated in 30 NCAA tournament games, counting two from Drew Barham’s days at Memphis. It’s a Southern University squad with zero tournament experience.

The challenge for GU coach Mark Few is to make sure his team sticks to the focused approach that has resulted in a 31-2 record and a No. 1 ranking in both major polls.

“We’ve been heavy favorites and we’ve played underdogs all year,” Few said. “Obviously, there’s a heck of lot more people watching now and heck of a lot more people wanting to talk about it. But from our point of view, it’s the same.”

Few noted recently that GU’s consistency, save for an uneven half or two and a handful of ragged stretches, has allowed him and his staff to “leave the gym feeling pretty good the last 4 1/2 months.”

The challenge for Southern coach Roman Blanks is to help his team handle the jitters and supply belief that it can become the first 16 seed to knock off a No. 1 when the teams meet today at approximately 1:10 PDT at EnergySolutions Arena.

“With the inexperience we have, it’s best for me to keep them loose instead of the ‘we’ve been here and know what it is,’ ” Banks said. “You keep the story true to them. We’ll go out and do our best.

“I expect them to have some nervous energy early, but I expect them to settle down. This group is very courageous. They’re not a group that’s just going to lie down and hand someone the game. They tend to fight, even if we’re outmanned on the inside or wherever.”

The Bulldogs appear to have a big edge inside with Kelly Olynyk, Elias Harris and company against the smaller Jaguars. To take advantage, Olynyk said Gonzaga needs to match execution with effort.

“We have to play with a chip on our shoulder, like we have something to prove,” Olynyk said. “They’re here for a reason. They’re conference champions and they’re not going to be pushovers.”

Few said Southern “shows a real commitment to defense. They’re challenging every shot and clogging up the lane. We don’t want to settle for jumpers but we’re going to have to make some jumpers, too. We’ll test it out early with transition, but there are areas we can still get our high-low and our post feeds. We’re never going to go away from that.”

The Jaguars (23-9) rank 13th nationally in scoring defense (57.1).

“I tell the guys you rent your offense, but you can own your defense,” Banks said. “We have a formula that we try to take top scorers away, try to make them shoot a certain percentage. It’s going to be a tough outing for us, but we have some things planned that hopefully can work and slow these guys down. If we’re shooting the ball pretty good, I think we can make this game very competitive.”

Southern’s scoring burden typically falls on senior guard Derick Beltran (team-leading 15.9 points per game), wing Malcolm Miller (15.8 ppg), point guard Jameel Grace (9.2 points, 4.3 assists) and center Javan Mitchell (9.5 points).

“They’re very big inside. We know that the big keys are turnovers and rebounding,” Grace said. “As far as the guards, we know we match up well with them. It’s going to be an up-tempo game and that’s our style of basketball. So let the best man win.”