Sam Dower Jr.
Sam Dower Jr.

One year after entering the NCAA men's tournament as the top-ranked team in the country, the Gonzaga Bulldogs look quicker.

After all, it's a lot easier to move around the court without the weight of the world on your shoulders.

"That was the coolest thing ever, to accrue a No. 1 seed (in the NCAA tournament)," coach Mark Few says. "But that was a hard thing to get through. I've talked to other perennial No. 1 coaches, and they agree with me."

The Bulldogs are seeded eighth in the 16-team West Region.

"It's a much different feeling this year," Few says.

"We don't have the burden of being the No. 1 seed," forward-center Sam Dower Jr. says.

"We feel no pressure," guard Gary Bell Jr. says.

Ninth-seeded Oklahoma State opened in Las Vegas as a 1-point favorite over the Bulldogs. Like Gonzaga, the Cowboys improved down the stretch after struggling a few weeks ago.

"They're probably underseeded, based on how they're playing at this particular time," Few says. "They're definitely trending upward, but so are we."

Oklahoma State, led by point guard Marcus Smart, is extremely athletic. The Cowboys' top five scorers are either guards or swingmen.

ESPN's NBA draft expert Chad Ford projects Smart to go sixth in the draft this year. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound sophomore averages 17.8 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 2.8 steals per game. Few raves about Smart's talent and character, playing down a February incident when Smart shoved an obnoxious Texas Tech fan.

"He's a huge challenge," Few says.

"Phenomenal athlete, phenomenal competitor," sums up Gonzaga point guard David Stockton.

Ford ranks 6-3 shooting guard Markel Brown (17.1 ppg) the No. 56 prospect in this year's draft. Le'Bryan Nash (14.2 ppg), a 6-7 wing, checks in at No. 85.

Przemek Karnowski (10.2 ppg, 6.9 rpg), Gonzaga's 7-foot-1 center, is ranked No. 100. The sophomore is not expected to turn pro this year. Dower, a senior who leads Gonzaga with 15.0 ppg and 7.1 rpg, is not on Ford's top 100 list.

The Cowboys finished eighth among 10 teams in the Big 12, then split two games in the conference tournament. Gonzaga, the WCC regular-season and tournament champion, improved to 5-0 all-time against OSU with a 69-68 win last season in Stillwater, Okla. The Big 12 is much stronger than the WCC.

Friday's winner likely will face top seed Arizona on Sunday. The Wildcats open against 16th-seeded Weber State.

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