Whether you're the kind of person who's already filled out a dozen brackets for various office/relative/online March Madness pools, or merely a casual sports observer living here in the Inland Northwest, there's a lot to keep up with thanks to Gonzaga and Eastern Washington — the only two schools from the state of Washington to make the big dance in 2015. Spokane County is home to some very hot hoops right now.
EASTERN WASHINGTON EAGLES
The Eags didn't make it easy on themselves in the Big Sky championship game. Playing the host Montana Grizzlies on their loud Dahlberg Arena floor, Tyler Harvey and Co. slugged it out in a pretty sloppy game throughout the first half and start of the second, eventually falling behind by double digits before storming back with a 21-6 run down the stretch for a close 69-65 win and trip to the NCAA tourney for the first time since 2004.
click to enlarge
Eastern Washington players watching Selection Sunday.
Given that EWU would not have scored an at-large bid without the win, Saturday's victory was huge, and gives the rest of the country the chance to get to know what we've learned over the course of this Eagles season — that they are one of the most entertaining teams in college hoops.
Sure, they have the nation's leading scorer in Tyler Harvey, a man who can bomb threes from half-court and slash to the basket with ease, picking up cheap layups and a lot of fouls in the process. But the team has a lot of other assets that have made them a popular pick to pull an upset (or two) in the tourney. Venky Jois is a big man with skills. In Drew Brandon and Parker Kelly, they have an experienced backcourt, and that always seems to help immeasurably in the pressure-packed tourney games. They have badass freshman Bogdan Bliznyuk banging down low, and Felix Von Hofe capable of deep daggers from the wing.
Another reason to think EWU has a great chance of winning their first game? Their opponent. Georgetown has become renowned in recent years for losing early in the tournament, even when they're seeded highly, as they are again this year as a No. 4. And if the Eagles get by the Hoyas (tip-off is 6:57 pm Thursday in Portland), they'll face the winner of Utah and Stephen F. Austin. The Utes struggled down the stretch and SFA is seeded just higher than the Eagles at No. 12, so neither of those teams should intimidate EWU, especially if they've already beaten Georgetown.
And if the Eagles get really hot, who knows? They might just go on a run that lands them in a game to go to the Final Four against ... (DAN NAILEN)
Selection Sunday has become somewhat of a routine for us jaded members of the media in Spokane. We're always sure Gonzaga is in the tournament, it's just the details — where and who they'll play — that we're waiting on.
But coach Mark Few, taking to the podium about an hour after the Zags learned they earned a No. 2 seed and were headed to Seattle on Friday for a 6:50 pm game against North Dakota State at Key Arena, was quick to remind the assembled media that his program still finds Selection Sunday, the NCAA tournament and everything that comes with it very special.
"A lot of people take this day for granted, but we don’t. The coaches don’t, the players don’t, the people close to us in the athletic department who understand the process don’t," said Few. "It’s something really special when your name comes up and obviously this year when it’s in Seattle and close enough for our fans to get there — that makes it even more enjoyable so more friends and family can get to this thing on short notice. It’s a great reward for an incredible regular season."
The Zags come into the NCAA tournament riding the high from a convincing win over BYU in the West Coast Conference championships with big performances from seasoned players like Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr., and Prezemek Karnowski, as well as newcomer Kyle Wiltjer.
As for North Dakota State, some Spokanites will remember the Bison for the yellow-and-green horde of fans the team brought with them when they played at the Spokane Arena in the first rounds of last year's NCAA tournament. They might also recall that NDSU became darlings of the first day of the tourney with a huge upset win over Oklahoma.
This season's Bison don't look quite as fierce as that squad, though. But look for senior guard Lawrence Alexander to give the Zags some fits on the perimeter. He scored 25 points in the Bison's one-point victory over South Dakota State in the Summit League championship game.
WOMEN ZAGS WAIT
The Gonzaga women will have to hold out hope for an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament until 4 pm today (ESPN) when seedings are announced for the women's tournament. After losing in the WCC semifinals to BYU, Gonzaga's hopes of dancing were diminished, but not eliminated. And even if they don't make it into the NCAA tournament, there's a very good chance they'd get to host a Women's NIT game. (MIKE BOOKEY)