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John Blanchette: Gonzaga has faced plenty of behemoths in past NCAA tournaments

UPDATED: Wed., March 15, 2017

North Dakota State's Dexter Werner (40) looks around South Dakota State's Mike Daum (24) on his way to the net during an NCAA college basketball game for the Summit League men's tournament championship, Tuesday, March 8, 2016, in Sioux Falls, S.D. (Elisha Page / AP)
North Dakota State's Dexter Werner (40) looks around South Dakota State's Mike Daum (24) on his way to the net during an NCAA college basketball game for the Summit League men's tournament championship, Tuesday, March 8, 2016, in Sioux Falls, S.D. (Elisha Page / AP)

SALT LAKE CITY – In March of 1999 – or 1 A.D., as it’s known in the context of Gonzaga basketball – the Bulldogs’ coaching staff devised what would be the game plan to launch a dynasty, not that anyone thought about it that way at the time.

Or even now. Hey, a game plan is still just a game plan.

But the Zags of ’99, in just the school’s second NCAA Tournament appearance, were very much in not-just-happy-to-be-here mode. If no one could possibly anticipate the Elite Eight run that would birth the best college basketball story of the millennium, sights were set high. Beating Minnesota in the first round, then, wasn’t just doable – it was demanded.

Even before the Gophers suspended two starters and two subs on tournament eve for academic vice, Gonzaga had settled on a strategy to shut down Minnesota’s Quincy Lewis, a 23-point-a-game wonder with an inside-out style. The 6-foot-7 Lewis had put up 36 on Bobby Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers; that sort of thing would be poison in the tournament.

So the Zags stuck their own “Q,” 5-8 Quentin Hall, on Lewis, and played a diamond zone with their other four players. Mike Nilson spelled Hall, but the enduring image was Little Q alternately yapping at Big Q and then tying him in knots: the Gophers star shot a woeful 3 of 19 in a 75-63 loss.

Of course, elsewhere on the court, a freshman walk-on named Dusty Rychart who averaged 3.8 points a game went off for 23 points and 17 rebounds and had the Zags on the ropes.

Welcome to the great tradeoff of game-planning.

And welcome back to March Madness, where on Thursday the Bulldogs risk their tournament lives against a 16 seed looking to make history and a 6-9, 25-point-a-game wonder with an inside-way-out style, who put up 51 points in a game earlier this year, the sort of thing that would be poison in the tournament.

Mike Daum is like nothing the Zags have seen this year – and maybe ever – and is why South Dakota State brings more than the average 16-seed puncher’s chance to the dance.

The nation’s second-leading scorer – his Twitter handle is @dauminator24 – comes from a town tucked in the southwest corner of Nebraska, Kimball, the size of Colfax. His skill set – deep 3s, drives, post-ups and lots of trips to the foul line – invites comparisons.

“We call him ‘Baby Dirk,’ like Dirk Nowitzki,” said teammate Michael Orris. “And it’s a perfect fit. He’s really a marvel to watch.”

Gonzaga assistant coach Brian Michaelson had a more relevant parallel.

“He’s Kyle Wiltjer that drives better,” he said, not referencing the ex-Zag’s touch behind the wheel.

Head coach Mark Few threw in Adam Morrison as another stylistic cousin to Daum. Earlier this year, he equated BYU’s Eric Mika to Domantas Sabonis.

Those comparisons suggest the Zags require some game-planning, too – and sometimes Michaelson mulls the “fine line” of obsessing over stopping individual stars.

“I wondered how consumed other teams were about Wiltjer,” he said. “I played with Dan Dickau, Blake Stepp – Morrison being the most similar to this. How consumed do you get? But this guy could go get 50 tomorrow and that would be very hard to overcome, so you have to be consumed with him.”

Sometimes those obsessions work out – Isaiah Whitehead of Seton Hall last year was a study in Zag lockdown. What happens more often is that the Bulldogs make players – Marcus Smart of Oklahoma State comes to mind – work extra hard and take many extra shots for their points.

“And we’ve given up some career highs, too,” assistant coach Tommy Lloyd said, in the spirit of playful full disclosure. “But maybe that was the plan, right – let them have 35 and we win? Actually, no. But we can pretend that it was.”

So, yeah, Stephen Curry went off for 40 against the Zags in the tournament and Jimmer Fredette for 34 and Wichita State’s 3-point shooters still haven’t missed.

And sometimes the Zag killers – or scarers – arrive unannounced, as when a human backhoe named Dexter Werner from North Dakota State put Zag fans in a dither two years ago, to the glee of every clunky beer leaguer watching on TV.

If Tyrannosaurus Dex can do such damage, no wonder the Zags are sweating Mike Daum.

“It’s the nature of the tournament – one and done,” Michaelson said. “A guy like Daum can beat you on opening night, he can beat you in game 20, he can beat you in game 34. You’re just a little more on edge. In game 1, it sucks but there are lots of games ahead. Game 34, you let a guy get going and he knocks you off and it’s over.”

And that’s never in the plan.

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