SALT LAKE CITY – Gonzaga and Fairleigh Dickinson collide Thursday, both with an eye on NCAA Tournament history.
The fourth-ranked Zags have all sorts of streaks they’d like to extend. First and foremost, they’ve reeled off 10 straight opening-round wins, joining Kansas for the nation’s longest active streak. They haven’t lost since Stephen Curry buried eight 3-pointers and scored 40 points to carry Davidson past Gonzaga in 2008.
The Zags (30-3) have reached four consecutive Sweet 16s, matched by nobody nationally, but first things first.
No. 16-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson (21-13) made history with the program’s first tournament win, a comeback victory over Prairie View A&M in the First Four on Tuesday.
The Knights would like to make a bigger splash by becoming the second 16 seed to knock off a No. 1, following in the footsteps of UMBC’s shocker over Virginia last March. Top seeds are 135-1 in the opening round with an average victory margin of 24.4 points.
“Teams think it’s possible now,” said Gonzaga forward Killian Tillie, who watched the UMBC-Virginia game on television. “The key is to play harder than them and don’t let them play their way. Play our way.”
The Zags obviously have no interest in becoming the second No. 1 to fall, but they haven’t enjoyed the smoothest of rides as a top seed in two previous trips to Salt Lake City.
The programs have vast differences in NCAA Tournament experience level. FDU’s all-time record is 1-5. The Zags went 5-1 in the 2017 tournament alone. Senior point guard Josh Perkins has 12 NCAA contests under his belt. The Zags have played in 21 consecutive NCAA Tournaments.
Fairleigh Dickinson boasts a nine-game winning streak. The Knights are in the top five nationally in 3-point percentage (40.4), but they’ve only attempted 650 3s, which ranks 290th nationally.
Senior guard Darnell Edge leads the way with 91 3-pointers at a 48.4-percent clip. He averages 16.9 points and is coming off a career-best 33 points against Prairie View. Sophomore guard Jahlil Jenkins, who averages 13.8 points and can create off the dribble, scored 20 of his 22 points in the second half.
“We shoot it well and we don’t shoot that many (3s) and that’s why we shoot it well, if that makes any sense,” coach Greg Herenda said. “We try to go to the basket and then if you guard that, which (Gonzaga) is going to guard, then we kick it and we step into shots.”
The Knights have made at least 40 percent beyond the arc in 11 of their last 13 games, including six above 50 percent.
Edge leads the offense, but all five starters average in double figures, one of only four teams nationally to do so. Bruising forward Mike Holloway Jr. and forward Kaleb Bishop – “as athletic as anybody in America,” Herenda said – both had double-doubles Tuesday.
Three starters played all 40 minutes and two others logged 36 minutes against Prairie View A&M. FDU has a limited rotation with Xzavier Malone-Key (11.4 points, 31 minutes) sidelined for the last four games.
“Scary quite frankly, tough, resilient and on a roll,” Zags coach Mark Few said of the Knights. “They’ve got a guard (Edge) shooting the heck out of it, a point guard (Jenkins) playing his best basketball and three bigs that are mobile and athletic like us and have some real toughness. We’re going to have to play a lot better than last time out.”
The last time out was miserable for the Zags, whose 21-game winning streak was clipped by Saint Mary’s 60-47 in the WCC Tournament title game last week.
“It was bad, it was rough to watch (video), but sometimes you have to do that,” senior guard Geno Crandall said. “We had to learn from the mistakes we made. The coaches voiced their thoughts and we voiced our thoughts on things. After that, we kind of threw it out the window.”
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