PORTLAND – Don’t bother calling it a rematch.
It’s a different season, a different cast of characters – at least on Western Kentucky’s roster – and a whole bunch more is at stake.
Gonzaga and WKU collided in the opening round of the Great Alaska Shootout last year with the Bulldogs pulling out a 74-71 win. The teams meet again tonight at 5:10 at the Rose Garden with the winner moving on to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
There weren’t many who expected WKU to make it to the Sweet 16 a year ago. There weren’t many who expected the Hilltoppers, minus a NBA first-round pick and another talented guard who is playing professionally overseas, to do much this season.
But here they are again, knocking on the door of another Sweet 16 with the fourth-seeded Bulldogs (27-5) standing in the doorway.
“It’s totally different,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “Last year they pressed us in a variety of ways. (Tyrone) Brazelton had the ball in his hands a lot and they ran everything pretty much around Courtney Lee (who is now with the Orlando Magic), as well they should have.
“It’s still Western Kentucky on their jerseys, but their personnel has changed and what they’re doing offensively and defensively has changed.”
What hasn’t changed is the 12th-seeded Hilltoppers (25-8) again feature a talented backcourt. Instead of Brazelton and Lee, an athletic 6-foot-5 wing, WKU relies on Sun Belt Conference player of the year Orlando Mendez-Valdez and A.J. Slaughter. They combine for nearly 30 points, eight assists and seven rebounds per game and they’re interchangeable at point guard.
“Once again, they’ve got great guards,” Gonzaga senior Jeremy Pargo said. “They do a lot of things with variations of ball screens and they really shoot the ball well.”
Slaughter scored 13 points against GU in Alaska while Mendez-Valdez had one point in nine minutes.
“Those other two (Brazelton and Lee) are hard to forget, but I remember both of these guys,” Bulldogs guard Matt Bouldin said. “Slaughter was younger, but he was always solid. Orlando is a really good shooter. He maybe didn’t have the ball in his hands as much when the other two were around. He’s really crafty.”
The two rarely leave the floor. They both played roughly 36 minutes in Thursday’s 76-72 win over No. 5 Illinois that might have been an upset according to seeding, but not how it played out on the floor. The victory landed Western Kentucky on the Friday cover of USA Today’s front page and sports page.
“We really have a chip on our shoulder from the beginning of the season when people didn’t think we were going to do much this year,” Slaughter said. “We were picked to finish third in our division. We keep that in the back of our heads every time we play.”
The Hilltoppers are undersized on the interior, but they’ve compensated with strength and athleticism. Jeremy Evans, a slender 6-foot-9 post, has chipped in double-figures points in four of the last five games. Sergio Kerusch, a 6-5 small forward, has 10 double-doubles. Steffphon Pettigrew, also 6-5 but a stout 225 pounds, has worked effectively inside and stung Illinois with a pair of 3-pointers.
After a 28-point loss to Murray State in the third game of the season, Pettigrew moved from small forward to power forward and helped spark the Hilltoppers to wins over Southern Illinois, Louisville, Georgia and Tulane in the next two weeks.
“For them to do what they did to Illinois on the glass (35-28) – that will keep you up at night,” Few said.
Gonzaga would appear to have an edge inside with 6-11, 260-pound Josh Heytvelt and 6-11 Austin Daye.
“We just have to do what we did in the second half (against Akron), run pick and rolls, certain post plays to get the defender on the high side and just be physical posting up against a smaller player,” Heytvelt said.
Despite considerable roster turnover, first-year coach Ken McDonald guided WKU to its 40th conference title and its 21st NCAA tournament appearance.
“They’ve got four pros in their starting lineup,” McDonald said of the Zags. “They shoot the ball extremely well; they’re long and athletic. I imagine they’ll try to go inside and we have to keep Pargo out of the lane.”
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