The 2013 Zags landed a No. 1 ranking and the first No. 1 seed in program history. They were fourth on the S-curve, the selection committee’s 1-68 ranking of tournament teams that it uses to try to balance the four regions.
The current Zags are seeded second, one spot down on the seed line. They’re seventh on the S-curve, just three spots below the 2013 team. Not much of a difference, other than it seems like a big difference.
“We experienced (being a No. 1), it’s not as easy as it sounds, especially when it’s your first time through it,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “I think probably worse than that was the reaction and the vitriol. It’s like, ‘Why are you hating on my team? They won games; that’s all they did.’
“So many people were attacking us for that No. 1 seed and to be honest, the crowd flipped on us in Salt Lake and I think our guys were taken aback by that. It’s a different deal but the fact that we went through it two years ago and again even sliding down a (seed) line helps us.”
Five of the top seven players in Gonzaga’s rotation have experienced the pressure and expectations attached to high seeds. Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. are four-year starters. Przemek Karnowski and Kyle Dranginis both averaged 10-plus minutes per game two seasons ago. Kyle Wiltjer averaged 11.6 minutes for 2012 national champion Kentucky, which was the top overall seed.
“I guess you could say that two years ago because we lost; if we would have won nobody would have said anything about having pressure on us,” Bell said. “We just have to go out and play how we’ve been playing. When we play our best I feel like no other team can play with us.”
The NCAA tournament routine is familiar for several Zags.
“I think my first trip was just different,” said Karnowski, a freshman on the 2013 team. “You don’t know what to expect. Then last year it was taking a plane, have practice, media, the whole deal. It never gets old because you’re excited to play in March Madness.”
And this year?
“It’s Gary’s last year, the last year for Kevin and Byron (Wesley),” Karnowski said. “We have to make it special.”
Gonzaga (32-2), which faces No. 15 North Dakota State (23-9) on Friday in Seattle, is generating a lot of attention as a two seed. ESPN’s Len Elmore picked Gonzaga to win the national title. Dick Vitale has the seventh-ranked Zags losing to Kentucky in the championship. At the other end of the spectrum, Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel picked Iowa to beat Gonzaga in the round of 32. CBSsports.com’s Chip Patterson has Davidson knocking off the Zags in the round of 32.
Pangos was asked if his legacy hinges on an extended tournament run.
“I haven’t really thought about that but it makes sense,” Pangos said. “It goes into winning and winning at the most important part of the year but that’s not my biggest concern. The legacy, that’s great and I love that stuff, but I just want to keep playing as long as I can.”
Bell Jr.’s defensive assignments this season have included BYU’s Tyler Haws, San Diego’s Johnny Dee, Loyola Marymount’s Evan Payne, Washington State’s DaVonté Lacy and Santa Clara’s Jared Brownridge. Bell’s next task figures to be North Dakota State standout Lawrence Alexander, who will probably see several different defenders by the final buzzer.
Alexander, the Summit League player of the year, led the Bison in scoring in 22 of 32 games. The 6-foot-3, 190-pound senior is 32nd nationally in scoring (18.9), 13th in 3-pointers per game (3.13) and eighth in 3-point percentage (44.1).
“With him averaging 20, I’ll probably have to guard him,” Bell said. “It’ll be a tough matchup and I’m looking forward to it.”
Alexander scores 29.3 percent of NDSU’s 64.5 points per game and he’s second on the team in assists. He averages 38.6 minutes, second nationally.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.