Men's NCAA Tournament
Gonzaga bags a No. 3 seed, trip to Tucson
"We're a marked team. There's really no going back," said Gonzaga coach Mark Few.
Times college basketball Reporter
As recently as three years ago, when Gonzaga basketball players gathered for Selection Sunday, it was among several hundred rabid supporters partying at a Spokane hotel.
Now the Zags simply meet at coach Mark Few's lodge-style home south of town and learn their fate. Yesterday, they discovered they're going to Tucson as a No. 3 seed, pitted against 14th-seeded Winthrop on Thursday in a first-round NCAA game at 4:25 p.m. Seattle time.
"The days of innocence are gone," said Few. "We're a marked team. There's really no going back."
Center Ronny Turiaf, the West Coast Conference player of the year, talked about the Zags "having a chip on our shoulders" as they play in a seventh straight NCAA tournament. Last year, they bowed out in crushing style at KeyArena, a No. 2 seed that fell heavily to Nevada in a second-round game.
Now they get a first-round game against a program that began to have its first success about the same time Gonzaga did, albeit on a different level. The South Carolina-based Eagles will be playing in their fifth NCAA tournament since 1999, but haven't won a game. They came closest in a play-in game in 2001.
Eagles at a glance RPI: 70
Seed: 14th in Albuquerque Region
Conference: Big South
Coach: Gregg Marshall
Starters: Torrell Martin (6-5 So.), 12.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg; James Shuler (6-6 Jr.), 12.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg; Phillip Williams (6-8 So.), 7.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg; Craig Bradshaw, (6-10 So.), 8.0 ppg, 3.4 rpg; Chris Gaynor (5-10 Fr.), 6.5 ppg, 4.5 apg.
Key stat: Last week, Winthrop ranked 16th nationally in FG percentage defense at 39.6.
Rim shots: Eagles are back in the NCAAs after a two-year absence. They went every year from 1999 to 2002 — all under Marshall — and lost to Auburn, Oklahoma, Northwestern State and Duke. ... Teams played one common opponent — Portland — with Winthrop losing 70-64 and Zags sweeping two from the Pilots in WCC play. ... Winthrop has the longest current winning streak — 18 — of any team in the tournament.
The Eagles haven't lost since Jan. 5, carrying a nation-best 18-game winning streak into the game. Gonzaga ranks No. 2 with 12 in a row.
Winthrop plays a controlled style and last week ranked in the top 10 in scoring defense, allowing 59 points a game. Its league, the Big South, struggled this year, and Winthrop dominated with a 15-1 conference mark. Only one other team in the league had an overall winning record.
"We want to show people that even though we have a young team, we can still play good basketball," said Turiaf. "We have to focus and go down there and take care of business."
The good news for Gonzaga is that Winthrop is itself a young team with only one senior. Its freshman point guard, Chris Gaynor, is a cousin of Wake Forest standout Chris Paul.
While Gonzaga would like to regain the magic of 1999-2001, when it won a total of seven NCAA games, in the big picture it was a significant upset to get a No. 3 seed and go 25-4 in a year in which it had serious losses from 2004.
"The motivating factor for all of us was to prove we could all play," said forward Adam Morrison, who had 55 points in the two WCC tournament games last week. "Hearing the whispers around town (last summer), about how the guard play was going to be, how were we going to be, that kind of put a chip on everyone's shoulder.
"I think coach Few will say this: We're the best offensive team we've had here in a while."
The Zags are in the Albuquerque Regional along with Washington, but it's a daunting road before they could begin to worry about each other. If they win, the Zags would get the victor of the Texas Tech-UCLA game, and ACC heavyweight Wake Forest looms at the bottom part of that bracket.
"There's so much parity out there, I really wasn't concerned about seeding," said Few.
Gonzaga fans could have gotten a better break in siting as they're going to Tucson instead of Boise. For coaches and players, however, the memory of having gotten that break last year and misfiring in Seattle tempers any disappointment.
"The burden of carrying such a high ranking, such lofty expectations was just a cloud hanging over (us)," Few said. "It was great to go to Seattle, but I think our guys felt pressure."
Referring to the latest Gonzaga edition, Few continued, "Sometimes with youth, there's a little bit of youthful exuberance. That being said, we're really a lot better team than we were a month ago, and probably better than two weeks ago. We've been working really hard and getting better at things."
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or email@example.com