You can't call Gonzaga a Cinderella. After all, the Zags are just a year removed from being a No. 2 seed, they have their own HBO special and are coming off the systematic dismantling of two very good basketball teams.
Still, as an 11 seed in the Sweet 16 and the only non-major-conference team remaining, Gonzaga, despite all their notoriety, are as close as there is to the little team that could. And considering the chaotically uneven regular season the team is coming off of — well documented in said HBO special — maybe it's OK to be surprised by how this year's Zags turned out.
When head coach Mark Few took the podium in Denver after the Zags crushed Utah 82-59, he didn't seem as shocked by the two wins as some might have expected. Back in February after Gonzaga's at-large bid chances faded with a loss at home to St. Mary's, it was hard for anyone to believe that all would be well in Zag Nation come the middle of March. But Few knows that timing is everything.
"End of the day, we're playing our best basketball of the year at the right time. The guys are confident. They're making plays. They're having fun. It's working," Few said.
Senior guard Eric McClellan continued his excellent March in Thursday night's 68-52 victory over Big East tournament champion Seton Hall. On the defensive end, McClellan had Pirates leading scorer Isaiah Whitehead sitting on the bench and sucking from an oxygen mask while taking a break from a 4-for-24 shooting night that saw him miss all 10 of his 3-point attempts. McClellan provided a huge offensive boost on Saturday, scoring 22 points on 9-of-12 shooting.
"By the way we were playing, the way we've been playing, you couldn't tell if there's been any pressure on us," McClellan said. "We've been playing free, we've been playing confident, we've been playing loose. Most importantly, we've been playing together."
What wasn't a surprise last weekend in Denver was the play of Domantas Sabonis. The sophomore elevated his NBA draft stock on a national stage with 21 points and 16 boards against Seton Hall, then 19 points and 10 rebounds against Utah. In that game, his much-hyped matchup against Utes big man Jakob Poeltl may have disappointed some — Sabonis held Poeltl to just five points.
Despite his dominance, Sabonis kept it humble, per usual.
"We just stuck to the plan as a team. We listened to the coaches and we kept on doing what we had to do on the court," said Sabonis.
Gonzaga now heads to Chicago for their second straight Sweet 16 and a matchup against Syracuse, another team that underperformed this year, yet nevertheless finds themselves alive in the second weekend of the tournament.
"From where we were in early December, or even mid-February where we had a couple stumbles, to now, these guys deserve all the credit for staying positive and believing in themselves and making plays," said Few. ♦
11 GONZAGA vs. 10 SYRACUSE
Fri, March 25, at 6:40 pm
Televised on CBS
GONZAGA IN THE SWEET 16
1999 vs. Florida: W, 73-72
2000 vs. Purdue: L, 75-66
2001 vs. Michigan State: L, 77-62
2006 vs. UCLA: L, 73-71
2009 vs. North Carolina: L, 98-77
2015 vs. UCLA: W, 74-62
21-13, 9-9 ACC
Syracuse is perhaps as unlikely a Sweet 16 participant as Gonzaga. A year ago, the NCAA sanctioned the program for a decade's worth of violations, including academic issues, improper booster relations, failure to follow drug-testing protocol and other problems. The Orange decided to decline participation in last season's ACC and NCAA tournaments.
The NCAA took away 12 basketball scholarships over a four-year period, vacated 108 wins and suspended head coach Jim Boeheim for the first nine games of the ACC schedule. The Orange — led by forward Michael Gbinije — made a promising run in conference play, but lost five of their last six games, even with Boeheim back on the bench.
Nevertheless, the Orange received a 10 seed and one of the more contentious NCAA invites in this year's field. After knocking out Dayton in their first game, they benefited from Middle Tennessee State's upset of Michigan State and dismantled MTSU 75-50 to set up Friday's matchup with the Zags. (MB)