You could see that Gonzaga has been there before if you watched the conclusion of some of the other games on Sunday. While teams like Penn State and Temple were celebrating wildly after their victories, Gonzaga had an understated post-game celebration. While other teams made their season by just getting to the Sweet 16, Gonzaga has been there before and wants more. Maybe that's why Gonzaga is a scarier team to face for Michigan State -- other teams can be blown off the court while still rubbing the stars out of their eyes.
"I think Gonzaga is Michigan State's worst nightmare," says Dan Monson, former Zags head coach and current coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers, which lost to Michigan State twice this year.
Still, the defending national champions have been the rest of the NCAA's worst nightmare all season long. After graduating Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson from last year's squad, Coach Tom Izzo has reloaded and the team has picked up where it left off. They won 12 in a row to start the season, including games against the likes of North Carolina, Kentucky and Florida. Sophomore Jason Richardson is already being compared to Vince Carter, and point guard Charlie Bell has been a steady force. But the key has been that all season long, the Spartans have been overpowering teams with their rebounding.
"Michigan State is an awesome rebounding machine," says Jud Heathcote, the Spartans former coach, now retired and living in Spokane. "Sometimes their best offense is the missed shot."
But the team is less experienced than last year's, and it showed in their few lapses (they only lost four times). At Indiana, they had 19 turnovers and only shot 38 percent. At Illinois, the Spartans only hit three of 18 three-point shots -- and they were outscored at the free throw line 23 to nine. At Ohio State, they again lost at the line, 20 to 10, as the Buckeyes used a two/three zone throughout the game. (Monson's team used a zone against them, too, in a three-point loss at Minneapolis.) Finally, in the Big 10 tournament, Penn State beat them again using a zone and forcing 17 turnovers.
"What they have to do is pretty obvious," says Heathcote, who will be in Atlanta rooting for Michigan State, "shoot well and do a better job on the boards than a lot of clubs have against them."
"Their biggest asset is their strength and size," says Monson, "and Gonzaga can spread 'em out. Michigan State hasn't seen a lot of zone. If GU can zone 'em, they can neutralize their inside game."
But the zone, which Gonzaga has used throughout the year, comes with its own problems. It's tougher to rebound out of a zone, so it could give Michigan State an even bigger edge on the boards. Still, if the Zags can shoot a high percentage, make their free throws and not turn the ball over, it looks like they'll be very competitive. Or, as Heathcote puts it: "They need to play an almost perfect game. But don't forget that early in the season, with eight minutes to go, they were five points ahead of Arizona. So they can play with the big teams."
Another dimension is the preparation. While teams that won their first-round game only had a day to prepare for their next game, now teams have almost a week to get ready for their opponent. Heathcote and Monson say it's possible to overthink things -- "Stick with what brung ya, is the old expression," advises Heathcote.
Still, it's like a chess match, with both coaches trying to anticipate the other's move. It's probably safe to say that Michigan State will try to pressure Dan Dickau and get the ball out of his hands, which could leave Blake Stepp open. Stepp was quiet in Memphis, and maybe the Spartan coaching staff didn't see what he did against Santa Clara in the WCC Championship. They'll also look to deny Casey Calvary, but again that leaves somebody open. In the game against Indiana State, that was Zach Gourde, whose repertoire of inside moves seems to expand with each game.
"Preparation is very important this time of year," says Heathcote. "Just doing a couple little things to stop the other team, or exploiting a defensive weakness can make the difference between winning and losing."
But anticipation can also tighten teams up, and Gonzaga may be able to exploit the Spartans' overexcitement early by getting the benefit of a couple of quick fouls or with some scripted plays that exploit the Spartans overplaying on defense.
So while in both of the last two years Gonzaga's mountain to climb was a No. 2 seed, this year they face a No. 1 seed. You've got to face them sometime, says Monson, who could watch his former team come to his new hometown, Minneapolis, if they win out in Atlanta.
"They've got a great opportunity," he says.
Playing for Position
With every game that passes, Casey Calvary may be earning more money. No, NCAA players don't get paid, but Calvary is catching the attention of NBA scouts as he helps carry his team deeper into the tournament. Previous middle-of-the-pack players have ridden their NCAA play into a higher draft spot -- last year, LSU's Stromile Swift shot up to the second overall pick, and Florida's Mike Miller got noticed as his team made the Final Four.
Right now, Calvary isn't projected as a first-round pick by many analysts, but his stock is rising with every play. Hitting the game winner against Virginia helped (mimicking his heroics of two years ago, when his tip-in beat Florida), but his all-around game against Indiana State is perfect resume material. Getting seven assists and nailing two three-pointers shows the kind of versatility the pros are looking for.
Since Calvary is thought to be too small to play power forward in the pros, he's projected as a small forward. And in the NBA, small forwards have to be able to do it all -- dribble, penetrate, defend and be able to jump. Calvary has all the tools, and some scouts are comparing his game to Tom Chambers, who played for the Sonics in the mid-1980s.
As the field narrows, there are fewer players to watch. And seeing Calvary hold his own against the nation's best could be all he needs to climb higher and join John Stockton as the university's only alum in the ranks of the NBA.
Building a Program
Having a good year can be a fluke. Having two good years means you've probably got some good players who know how to win. But having three straight trips to the Sweet 16 means you've got a program, not a team. The only other teams to have been in the last three Sweet 16s? Duke and Michigan State.
So how do you keep the ball rolling? Experts say you've got to feed your program with good players and better facilities. That's why Gonzaga University is now considering building a new arena and recreation center.
"The trustees have allowed us to proceed into looking at some designs for a new arena facility and a student fitness center," says GU President Robert Spitzer. "But this is in the planning stage, not in a building stage."
It's interesting how athletic success can bring success to the rest of a campus, but that's just what has happened in the past couple years at Gonzaga. The school's enrollment sets new records each year -- new housing is even being built to accommodate more students next fall. The Law School is thriving in its new building, and the university is receiving new endowments and creating new scholarship programs.
"We are on a roll," says Spitzer. "And these are really students first who are athletes, and they're real inspirations to the community and the culture around them. They lift up the whole school, and the whole school tries to lift them up."
Spitzer says the administration is well aware that they could easily sell at least 6,000 tickets to home games, which is why they are considering a new facility to replace the 4,000-seat Martin Centre.
Having an administration that is willing to give a program the tools it needs to succeed (aka money) is part of the equation, says Heathcote, but it's not the whole picture.
"Winning almost always opens doors," says Heathcote. "Gonzaga now gets to talk to players they wouldn't have been able to get in the door with before. But getting in the door and getting them to come to your program are two different things. The teams with all the money have a tremendous advantage."
Heathcote says the opportunity to play a lot of minutes factors high with potential recruits, but today the facilities and the number of times your team plays on TV are also part of the decision.
"So if you're Gonzaga, you have to get a little lucky, too," he continues. "Calvary broke his foot halfway through his senior year, so teams stopped recruiting him. Blake Stepp is the player of the year in Oregon, but his dad wants to move to North Idaho, so he comes here. Gonzaga's coaches have done a great job of getting high-profile players and low-profile players."
Monson says Gonzaga's key to attracting winners has been in being a place that doesn't get caught up in the hype. "Too many kids -- and too many programs -- get caught up in all the things that aren't important -- the facilities, the league, TV. At Gonzaga, they just want to win basketball games."
And yes, it is possible to build and maintain a nationally recognized program outside the comfort of a major conference -- just look at Cincinnati.
"As long as the Zags continue to play a quality schedule and be afraid of no one," says Monson, "they'll be a good program, not just a good team."
What's with the pairings the last two years? Last year, Gonzaga faced Purdue in the Sweet 16. Purdue is coached by Gene Keady, one of Dan Monson's mentors and a close friend of his dad, Don, a great coach in his own right at Idaho and Oregon who now lives in Spokane. Now, this year the team faces Michigan State, which used to be coached by Jud Heathcote, who has been an adviser to Coach Mark Few and the rest of the Bulldog coaching staff all season.
"It's hard when you come so close to coaches, players and the program," says Heathcote. "I hate to face a situation when you have to root against them, but hey, I'm a Spartan. Sure, I'm a transplanted Bulldog, too, but I'm not wavering."
The Bulldogs face Michigan State at 4:30 pm on Friday, March 23, in Atlanta. You can watch the game on KREM-2.