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John Blanchette: Top-seeded Gonzaga taking underdog mentality in topsy-turvy NCAA Tournament

UPDATED: Mon., March 22, 2021

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

INDIANAPOLIS – Interesting development here with Gonzaga’s latest envoys to the NCAA Tournament.

Suddenly, they care about seeding.

Just not in the way you might think.

It has, of course, been years since the Bulldogs admitted to parsing their self-worth by seed lines. That’s probably easier now since they’re a No. 1 or close every March, but it goes back to when the TV cameras caught them looking mighty glum at their selection party when they came up No. 6 – and even more glum when they fell in a first-round upset.

After that, they dropped bracket math from their course load, lest it distract from the overarching mission.

But now, a change of heart.

“We were treating this game like we’re a 16 seed and we’re the underdog,” insisted forward Drew Timme on Monday, after the Zags had handled Oklahoma 87-71 for entrée into a sixth straight Sweet 16.

Exactly the right attitude to bring to this particular tournament, as it happens.

If you haven’t had the TV on or been watching the flames engulf your bracket, the rabble has gone all off-with-their-heads on the usual royalty, injecting more madness than ever into March. As defined by the NCAA overseers, it’s only a true upset when a team seeded five spots lower – or more – than its opponent wins, and already the 2021 bracket has seen record busting. Before Monday evening’s games, there had been 12 of them already. Never had there been more than 10 before the round of 16 in any previous tournament.

“We’ve definitely seen the games going on,” said Timme, “but it’s March and anything can happen.”

And Oklahoma had that lean and hungry look.

Yes, the Sooners hail from the Big 12, which has been touting its bad self all year, and even climbed as high as No. 7 in the polls. But they’d staggered into the postseason, lost their second-leading scorer, De’Vion Harmon, to a positive COVID-19 test and came to Indy as an eighth seed. Plus, their first-round hero, Brady Manek, put on his best mean mug to declare, “We’ve beaten plenty of teams that are just as good as Gonzaga.”

The big fella then went out and knocked down his first 3 – and missed his last seven shots.

But the Sooners did give Gonzaga some heartburn, before the Zags drew away to a lead that reached 19 points – and then by cutting it to 79-70 with two minutes to play. Two Timme free throws, a big defensive play by Anton Watson to tie up OU’s Alondes Williams and a Corey Kispert 3 slammed the door – and then Elijah Harkness slammed Jalen Suggs with a cheap two-handed shove to punctuate the Sooners’ frustration.

Hey, when you see a 15 seed like Oral Roberts or a one-time blueish-blood like Syracuse channel Cinderella, you want to get some, too. But you handle it when you don’t.

The entertainment Monday was largely in the chess match Gonzaga coach Mark Few envisioned beforehand with OU’s Lon Kruger – and in Timme’s putting the game on his considerable shoulders.

“Lon does a great job of figuring out what you’re doing defensively,” Few said, “and then he starts picking on that.”

The Zags changed the look of the game when they started sending a second defender at the Sooners’ splendid Austin Reaves and clogging his routes to the basket. Soon enough, Kruger sent secondary help, mostly Williams, slashing to the rim in the lanes left open. The Zags adjusted, and Reaves resumed his uncanny torture to the tune of 27 points.

But he couldn’t keep up with Timme: 30 points, 13 rebounds – both career highs – and a 12-of-14 stroke at the foul line. One possession, he put on a move in the key that must have come from Arthur Murray’s; another time, he hesitated to draw a foul not from his man, but the help side shot blocker, Kur Kuath, for a three-point play.

“You’ve got to bring that fire because all it takes is one good game (by the opponent) and you can be out,” he said.

And you get a Sweet 16 with four teams seeded 11 or lower.

But should we be surprised? Probably not.

“I think this happens every year,” Few said, “and it’s like Lucy pulling the football on you people that are in our profession. But there are a lot of good teams out there, OK? And when you play them on the biggest stage and it’s just one game – not a seven-game series – anything can happen.

“There’s a lot of great coaches out there. You give them enough time to game plan for stuff like this, they’re going to take away your strengths. Somebody maybe you never heard of gets hot and all us teams, we go through phases.”

So you look for any mental edge. Like thinking of yourself as a 16 seed.

Even after working so hard to get to No. 1.

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