The Gonzaga men roll back into the Sweet Sixteen

Another year, another second weekend appearance for Mark Few and co.

click to enlarge The Gonzaga men roll back into the Sweet Sixteen
Torrey Vail/Gonzaga Athletics
Ben Gregg and Anton Watson had the Bulldogs rolling the first week of the NCAA Tournament.
The 12-seed versus 5-seed is always a trendy upset pick in the NCAA Tournament. It had happened 53 times coming into this year’s event. Gonzaga even did it once, against Virginia back in 2001.

As a 5-seed this time around, the Gonzaga men became a trendy pick to be the victim of such an upset. Many pundits around college basketball picked the 30-win McNeese State team to take down the Zags in the First Round.

Gonzaga won.

Easily.

Then, in the second round against 4-seed Kansas, one of the bluest of the sport’s blue bloods, the Zags were supposed to be the underdogs according to the seeding.

Gonzaga won.

Easily.

We probably should have seen this coming. Gonzaga had made the Sweet Sixteen for eight straight NCAA Tournaments after all. For context, only one other team — Houston, with five straight — has a current Sweet 16 streak of over two.

Now, make it nine straight for the Zags.

In early-February, simply reaching the NCAA Tournament seemed like a challenge for this year’s crop of Zags. But this year’s Bulldogs has transformed in the weeks since and is once again playing like the March juggernaut that fans have grown accustomed to in recent years.

Since 2015, the Zags’ 27 NCAA Tournament wins are more than any team in the sport, four clear of second-place North Carolina.

The Zags were dominant from the start against McNeese State in the first round and ultimately won an 86-65 blowout. The game wasn’t even as close as the final score would suggest.

In the second round against Kansas, the Jayhawks hung tough in the first half, even leading by a point at the break. After halftime, though, Gonzaga throttled Kansas, winning by a final score of 89-68.

After playing an over-hyped but underwhelming McNeese State team — four of their 30 wins came against non-Division I opponents — and an injury-depleted Kansas team that faced Gonzaga without its best player (Kevin McCullar), things will get a good bit tougher going forward.

click to enlarge The Gonzaga men roll back into the Sweet Sixteen
Torrey Vail/Gonzaga Athletics
The Zags celebrated in style after earning another trip to the Sweet 16.
Gonzaga’s next opponent is neither over-hyped nor injury-depleted. Top-seeded Purdue has been a buzzsaw all season long and has shown no signs of slowing down, as evidenced by the Boilermakers’ 106-67 win over Utah State in the second round.

Purdue is led by last season’s National Player of the Year, Zach Edey, who's a near-lock to win the award again this season. The gigantic 7-foot-4 big man is averaging an impressive 24.5 points and 12.1 rebounds per game.

On the perimeter, a pair of sophomore guards coming off of unexpectedly impressive freshman seasons have developed into consistently productive players for the Boilermakers.

Point guard Braden Smith is averaging a well-balanced 12.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 7.3 assists while shooting guard Fletcher Loyer puts up 10.5 points on a scorching 45% shooting from behind the three point line.

These numbers, strong as they may be, should not be shocking to the Zags.

Gonzaga’s pretty familiar with this bunch of Boilermakers. These two teams faced off last season and again back in November at the Maui Invitational. Purdue won both match-ups, but the Zags led by five at halftime in this season’s meeting before ultimately falling by a 73-63 margin.

In that game, the Zags went a dismal 0-13 from behind the 3-point arc after halftime, which allowed their lead to evaporate and flip into a deficit.

The thing is, the Zags then were not playing like the Zags are now. In their first two NCAA Tournament games, the Zags averaged nine successful 3-pointers on 18 attempts per game.

Since playing Purdue before November, Gonzaga has not only grown, but changed. Ben Gregg was coming off the bench back then. He’s been a starter for the past few months, and since moving into the starting lineup, Gonzaga’s offense has undergone a revolution. The team has been especially potent from deep, and Gregg has been a huge part of that, making 40 of 104 shots (38.5%) from distance.

Gonzaga has the underdog mentality needed to pull off a monumental upset like this, but Purdue has something potentially even stronger on its side: redemption.

Last season saw the Boilermakers earn a 1-seed in the tournament, but fell in shocking fashion in the first round to 16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson. It was just the second time in NCAA Tournament history that a 16-seed took down a 1-seed.

However, the last time it happened, Virginia followed up its loss to a 16-seed by winning the National Championship the following season. Purdue hopes to follow that same path.

But in order to do that, the Boilermakers will have to get through a red hot Gonzaga squad on Friday evening in Detroit. 

NEXT UP

Gonzaga vs. Purdue • Fri, March 29 at 4:39 pm • TBS

Charlie Pepiton: Without Them I Am Lost @ Gonzaga University Hemmingson Center

Tue., April 23, 6 p.m.
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