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Back to the big dance 

by Rhiannon Fabian

The Gonzaga men's basketball team, their coaches and all the Zag fans were hoping to be making a trip to potato country this weekend. However, those dreams ended in a chorus of boos as the last seed for the NCAA West bracket was announced, and it wasn't Gonzaga.

A packed conference room at the Ridpath Hotel found out last Sunday that the 12th seeded Bulldogs will be playing 5th seeded Virginia in Memphis, Tenn., in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The game will be played in the Pyramid Friday at 9:25 am Spokane time.

"We hope to be in the West," said sophomore forward Zach Gourde before the selection. "Boise would be nice." The fans were hoping for Boise so they could make the short drive, and the team was hoping for Boise so they would have more fans.

"The thing about our fans," said Gourde, "is that they're willing to make that kind of commitment. We always seem to pick up a lot of fans along the way, too."

"It's a disappointment for our fans that it wasn't Boise," said assistant coach Leon Rice just after the selection was announced. "We've got great, loyal Zag fans. If they can make it, they will."

Having strong fan support is only half the battle; the other half rests in the capable hands of the players. Virginia, an Atlantic Coast Conference team, was 20-8 for the season while Gonzaga was 24-6. Looking at the numbers, Gonzaga had more wins, but the list of opponents varied considerably.

"They're really good. They beat North Carolina and Duke," said Rice. He added that they have a good game both under the basket and from the three-point line. "They're a pretty complete team."

Still, after the past two seasons' performances, dropping to a 12 seed was a little bit of a disappointment. Last year's team was a 10 seed. It seems the East Coast bias against leagues like the West Coast Conference may be real. And lots of teams -- more than in previous years -- seemed to get shipped away from home.

Still, you won't hear any Bulldog players complaining. All they want is a chance, and if they were highly regarded, then they couldn't play the spoiler every year. Gourde, having played in the NCAA tournament before, remains confident the Bulldogs will prevail against the Cavaliers.

"They're very athletic. They get up and down the floor," said Gourde. "We've done well against teams like that in the past. I think they're very beatable. We're playing the kind of basketball that, no matter who the opponent, we feel we can beat anyone."

After five seniors graduated last year, four of them starters, Gonzaga was left to build a team on many new faces. Those faces consisted of everything from transfers to at least one freshman straight out of high school. Fortunately, the newcomers seem to know what Bulldog ball is all about. Point guard Dan Dickau came to Gonzaga after playing at the University of Washington. The Huskies went to the Sweet 16 his freshman year there, and went to the NCAA tournament again his sophomore year.

"It feels better this time because I'm more a part of the team," said Dickau. "To be able to do it with good friends is even better. They're a good team, but we'll match up fine. We set a goal, and we knew we had obstacles. It was a matter of if we were able to gel in time and get to know each other." Dickau believes the team has accomplished this goal.

Over the past two seasons, Gonzaga has come to be known as "the team with heart" within the media circles. Many thought this is what helped them win against teams such as Stanford, Florida and St. John's.

"It plays a part in recruiting," said Dickau of the so-called heart. "Alex [Hernandez] and Anthony [Reason] had a chance to go to other places, but they came here because they wanted to be part of a winning program."

For junior guard Hernandez, being a part of that winning team meant changing the way he played. At the junior college he played for in Wyoming, his role was to make the big plays. However, he found a new niche at Gonzaga.

"I contribute a lot," said Hernandez at the Ridpath gathering Sunday. "I come off the bench to give the team a spark." This spark is what helped propel the team to a West Coast Conference championship title and an automatic berth into the NCAA tournament.

"This is my dream come true, making it to the tournament," said Hernandez. "This is just the first of what we have to accomplish. When we lost Dan [to injury earlier in the season], he was a big part of the team. When he came back, we got stronger. We're playing good basketball. I've got a good feeling that we can compete against them if we play like we have been."

For freshman guard Blake Stepp, this is an experience unmatched to any other. Not only is he going to the biggest basketball tournament in the country, he is being introduced into the relentless world of stardom.

"It's amazing," said Stepp. "I didn't expect this in my first year. I've never signed so many autographs in my life."

As for his media experience, "at first it's a little nerve-racking," he said. "You hear a lot of the same questions, so you figure out how to answer them."

Even with all the media and attention, Stepp always seems to keep his cool. During the season, a smile only crossed his face a handful of times. However, his three-point shots from NBA range gave the fans plenty to smile about.

"There's not much time for smiling, that's for after the game. I'm always thinking something can be done better," said Stepp. Hopefully, he'll have plenty to smile about after the first game in Memphis.

& & & lt;i & The Gonzaga Bulldogs play the University of Virginia on Friday at 9:25 am on KREM 2. & r &

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