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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Gonzaga faces red-hot Xavier with Final Four spot on the line

SAN JOSE, Calif. – In coach Mark Few’s mind, Gonzaga has gone from facing one of the most unique styles in college basketball to one of hottest teams left in the NCAA tournament.

West Virginia was all about pressure defense. Gonzaga solved it well enough to pull out a 61-58 victory Thursday.

Xavier is all about offensive versatility and changing defenses. And proving doubters wrong.

“Xavier has our full attention,” said Few, one victory away from guiding the second-ranked Zags (35-1) to the first Final Four in program history. “I mean they are on an absolute roll, shooting the ball probably as good as anybody in the tournament right now.”

The 11th-seeded Musketeers (24-13) have embarked on a magical March after a six-game losing streak late in the regular-season threatened to derail their tournament hopes. A Big East tournament win over Butler probably clinched Xavier’s at-large bid.

Still, not much was expected from Xavier entering the tournament. The Musketeers lost starting point guard Edmond Sumner (15 points per game, 5 assists) to a season-ending knee injury in late January and standout wing Trevon Bluiett was battling an ankle injury that he says still hasn’t quite fully healed.

“We came closer,” said freshman Quentin Goodin, who stepped in for Sumner at point guard. “Malcolm (Bernard) called a team meeting after Senior Night and said we have to quit this losing stuff or we’re not going to make the tourney. We wanted to show everybody we’re not done.”

Far from it. Xavier has tourney wins over No. 6 Maryland, No. 3 Florida State and No. 2 Arizona. The Musketeers thumped Florida State by 25. They beat Arizona with a 9-0 closing kick in a 73-71 victory Thursday.

They join LSU (1987) as the only squads in tournament history to beat three top six seeds in their first three games.

Bluiett, a 6-foot-6 junior wing who originally committed to UCLA, is averaging 25 points in the tournament. He dropped 40 points on Cincinnati in late January.

“I would say I’m more of a ‘3’, a ‘2’, a ‘4’,” said Bluiett, when asked about his position. “Whatever position needs to be done. I’m physically strong enough to compete with some of the bigs. As far as IQ, shooting and ball-handling I feel like I can be with the guards.”

Bluiett is one of several Musketeers in the 6-4 to 6-6 range that can score from beyond the 3-point arc or off the dribble. Bluiett is shooting nearly 48 percent on 3s and the team checks in at 46.4.

“He’s a nice-sized wing capable of making 3s, a little bounce to his game and he has a ton of freedom,” said Zags assistant coach Tommy Lloyd, who joined Donny Daniels in compiling the scouting report. “Just a guy we’re going to dedicate a lot of attention to and try not to give him much space.”

Lloyd said Xavier players have freedom to create but the team also runs a high number of set plays.

Xavier, despite only one starter taller than 6-6, outscored Arizona’s sizable frontcourt 38-32 in the paint.

“They probably get tired of hearing me say this, that you have to get the ball into what we call the box, the lane, through a few ways,” coach Chris Mack said. “And that’s through post-ups, drives, offensive rebounds and set plays.”

Gonzaga can expect to see quite a bit of zone defense, which could put pressure on the guards to deliver from the perimeter. Arizona was just 7 of 27 from distance.

“A zone leaves a lot of 3s available,” Gonzaga guard Silas Melson said. “But our main attack is being ourselves and still trying to get it in to our big guys down low because they’re so efficient.”

The Musketeers use a 1-1-3, 2-3 and 1-3-1. They relied on a seven-man rotation against Arizona and the zone helps keeps players fresher.

“Quite honestly, we weren’t very good at man,” Mack said, “and I’m not going to keep doing something if it’s not effective.”

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