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Gonzaga Basketball

Gonzaga earns NCAA Tournament’s top overall seed, opens Saturday against Appalachian State or Norfolk State

Gonzaga made more history on Selection Sunday, earning the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament for the first time.

As the rest of the West Region bracket was unveiled, it had to look familiar for the Bulldogs, who defeated three of the primary challengers during the regular season and a few other teams that have strong connections to Gonzaga’s program.

The Zags (26-0) open at 6:20 p.m. PST Saturday (TBS) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis against the winner of Thursday’s First Four game between Norfolk State and Appalachian State.

Appalachian State/Norfolk State tips at 5:40 p.m. PST Thursday on truTV. The game will be played at Assembly Hall on Indiana’s campus in Bloomington.

If the Zags advance – No. 1 seeds are 139-1 vs. No. 16s – they would meet the No. 8 Oklahoma-No. 9 Missouri winner.

Gonzaga has convincing wins over West second seed Iowa, third seed Kansas and fourth seed Virginia. The Zags thumped Iowa 99-88 on Dec. 19 in South Dakota, handled Kansas 102-90 on Nov. 26 in Fort Myers, Florida, and destroyed Virginia 98-75 on Dec. 26 in Fort Worth, Texas.

Kansas (Big 12) and Virginia (ACC) both pulled out of their respective conference tournaments with COVID-19 concerns.

ESPN’s Jay Bilas said Gonzaga couldn’t have asked for a better draw. Dick Vitale agreed.

“They’ve beaten (Iowa, Kansas and Virginia) easily, so I think that’s a confidence builder,” Vitale said. “I like the Zags’ chances, man. I like them big time. They’re going to pull a Bobby Knight (coach of unbeaten Indiana in 1976). They’re going 32-0 and they’re going to win this tournament.”

The West also includes No. 12 seed UC Santa Barbara, which faces No. 5 Creighton. Former Zag John Rillie is UCSB’s associate head coach. Liam Lloyd, son of Gonzaga coach Tommy Lloyd, is a freshman guard for No. 15 Grand Canyon, which takes on Iowa.

Now comes the heavy lifting for the Zags, who will have to buck several trends to complete an unbeaten season.

Gonzaga is the fifth team to enter March Madness with an unblemished record since the 1976 Hoosiers. Indiana State lost to Michigan State in the 1979 title game. UNLV fell to Duke in the 1991 Final Four. Wichita State was bounced by Kentucky in the 2014 second round. Wisconsin upset Kentucky in the 2015 Final Four.

“What we’ve been through this year and to have this incredible run, heck to be undefeated on March 14 is crazy, especially with the preseason we played and even just getting through our league season,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said on ESPN. “We’ve carried the No. 1 target on our shoulder all year. I think that’s an incredible accomplishment.

“That being said, heck yeah, we want to win a national championship. But one thing I know I can give to these guys is the experience of being in this tournament, and every darn game we have to be ready to go and play really well, including this first one.”

The Zags snagged a No. 1 seed for the fourth time. They’re 9-3 as a 1 seed. They lost to Wichita State in the 2013 round of 32, advanced to the 2017 title game vs. North Carolina and lost to Texas Tech in the 2019 Elite Eight.

The Zags have been No. 1 in the AP poll all season, but the only top-ranked team in the final poll to win the national championship in the past two decades was Kentucky in 2012. It’s only happened four times since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

Only three overall top seeds – Florida in 2007, Kentucky in 2012 and Louisville in 2013 – have won the NCAA Tournament since the seeding order was first introduced in 2004. In the past five tourneys, only Kentucky in 2015 reached the Final Four.

Norfolk State (16-7) captured the MEAC Tournament championship with a 71-63 win over Morgan State. The Spartans, No. 169 in the NET rankings, are in the NCAA Tournament for just the second time. They upset No. 2 Missouri in the opening round in 2012.

Joe Bryant Jr. was named MEAC Tournament MVP. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound junior guard averages 11.6 points and 4.3 rebounds. Devante Carter, a 6-3 senior guard, averages a team-leading 15.5 points, 5.3 boards and 4.0 assists.

Appalachian State (17-11) won four games in four days and claimed the Sun Belt Conference Tournament with an 80-73 upset over No. 1 seed Georgia State.

Senior guard Michael Almonacy, named tournament most outstanding player, made six 3-pointers and scored a career-high 32 points as the Mountaineers clinched the program’s third NCAA Tournament appearance.