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John Blanchette: 16th-seeded Norfolk State ‘not looking past’ historic Gonzaga squad

UPDATED: Fri., March 19, 2021

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

INDIANAPOLIS – Since the historic 2018 stunner when Virginia was taken down by the University of Miracle, Baltimore County, it’s been offered that No. 16 seeds in the NCAA Tournament now have more than just a prayer and a slingshot.

But you don’t know the half of it.

Fresh off their First Four victory over App Store, Norfolk State guard Jalen Hawkins and coach Robert Jones were back on Friday to assay their chances against the bracket’s overall No. 1 seed, unbeaten Gonzaga.

“We’re not looking past them,” Hawkins said.

Oh, yes, he did.

To be fair, Hawkins was not the picture of ease fielding questions and he probably didn’t mean it that way. Or, if he’s a reflection of his coach, maybe he did.

“If we want to reach our goal of winning the national championship,” Jones said, “we got to go through Gonzaga.”

Goal of winning a nationa …?

“This is a national championship tournament last I checked,” he reasoned. “We’re not just looking to beat Appalachian State. We’re looking to go as far as we can.”

It’s been a while since Gonzaga had to look at an NCAA bracket from the bottom up, and never from the very bottom. Of course, the original sparks that started this basketball bonfire were double-digit seeds that did major damage in the office pool world. But even when the Zags slipped to an 11 seed in 2016, the program’s reputation and the presence of talents like Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer muffled the underdog narrative.

And now they’re opening discussing becoming the first team since Indiana in 1976 to finish off an unbeaten season, which would require six more victories.

Sure seems doable for Corey Kispert and the fellas.

But experience and a reflex to belittle the quixotic do not allow us to embrace the same dream for the 16s.

The dream UMBC fulfilled is supposed to be enough, right?

But apparently not.

In fact, Jones can’t bring himself to cite that amazing bit of NCAA lore as a reference point for his Spartans.

“We never talk about the UMBC-Virginia game with this team,” he said. “We talk about our games. We talk about how we were 21-point underdogs against Missouri (in the 2012 NCAAs) and 17-point underdogs against Alabama in the (2019) NIT. We own some big history ourselves.

“Forget about any other team’s jerseys. The people who have been in those jerseys and walked those halls of echoes have pulled some of the biggest upsets in college basketball history.”

The Spartans were a 15 seed when they gobsmacked 30-win Missouri, Jones an assistant at the time two years before he became the head coach. Such an upset happened for just the ninth time Friday with The Oral Roberts University slapping The Ohio State University.

Nine isn’t a lot in 36 years of the full bracket, but it’s nine times more often than No. 16 has played on.

If Jones seems to take his edginess to an extreme, he certainly comes by it honestly. He grew up in South Jamaica, Queens, played at SUNY New Paltz, assisted at places like Bard and coached high school ball on Long Island. He’s New York, through and through.

“It’s a rat race – in more ways than one,” he said. “Pretty big rats up there, too.”

And it’s an edge that should make the Zags beware, although the program has already had its close shave against a No. 16 back in 2013 to drive home the point. Jones saw it from the other side in that Missouri game.

“You’re almost in awe at first, but then you realize they’re just like us,” he said. “Sometimes kids don’t believe it until you see it, and those kids weren’t going to let us lose. We have to have the same mentality with Gonzaga.

“Now they have four All-Americans, which is a little different than what Missouri had.”

See, Jones isn’t trying to cut Gonzaga down to size. He’s trying to elevate his guys. It’s part of the same reason he didn’t join in the hoo-hah over two HBCU schools – Texas Southern the other – winning in the NCAAs for the first time.

“We keep saying it’s a big weekend for HBCU basketball – no, it’s a big weekend for these kids,” he said. “In the whole grand scheme, yes, it shows that HBCUs can play basketball. We’re not just running around like chickens with our heads cut off, right? We’re actually executing sets, play defense. We’re not just playing park ball. It’s a shame that people think that.”

But what got him more riled than anything was the Spartans’ seed. Not being a 16, necessarily, but being that 16.

“Do I think we should have even been playing Gonzaga? That’s a whole other story,” he groused. “I don’t think we were the 67th-ranked team in the NCAA Tournament. That’s no takeaway from the other 16 seeds. We should have been playing Michigan or Illinois or somebody like that. But that’s for another day, I guess.”

Maybe on the podium at the Final Four?

Oops, forgot. They’re not looking past Gonzaga.

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