SALT LAKE CITY — Things didn’t work out well for Gonzaga the last time it came to Utah as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament in 2013.
The Bulldogs flirted with disaster in the Round of 64 when they did not pull away from 16th seed Southern until the final minute. Then, in the next round, ninth-seeded Wichita State sent Gonzaga home with a crushing defeat and used the upset victory to fuel an unexpected run to the Final Four.
Gonzaga (32-1) will get a chance for redemption in the same arena where it flamed out four years ago. The Bulldogs return to Salt Lake City as a No. 1 seed for just the second time in school history and will square off against 16th-seeded South Dakota State.
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They also bring in a team that is talented enough on both ends of the court to make a serious push to reach the Final Four.
“We’re 32-1, this team has been exceptional all year,” Bulldogs coach Mark Few told the school’s official website after his team beat St. Mary’s 74-56 to win the West Coast Conference tournament title. ”They’ve stepped up and met every challenge. We’ve been good from Nov. 10 to March 7 and haven’t taken any nights off. Our results speak for themselves.”
Leading the way for Gonzaga is talented guard Nigel Williams-Goss. The junior has elevated his game to another level since joining the program as a transfer from Washington.
Williams-Goss leads the Bulldogs in scoring with 16.9 points per game and also chips in 5.7 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.8 steals. He is also money at the free throw line, hitting 91.0 percent on his attempts to rank ninth nationally in free throw shooting.
Complementing Williams-Goss on the inside is a tough frontcourt that features leading rebounder Johnathan Williams (6.5 rebounds), mammoth center Przemek Karnowski and sixth man Zach Collins. It speaks to how much depth Gonzaga has when Collins, a projected first-round NBA draft pick, is the first player off the bench.
Gonzaga’s average margin of victory this season is a nation’s best 23.4 points per game and the team averaged 51.8 percent shooting from the field while holding opponents to 36.8 percent. The Bulldogs also rank second in the NCAA defensively in points per possession.
Hanging with such a team will be a tall task for Summit League tournament champion South Dakota State. The Jackrabbits (18-16) will likely need a big game from Mike Daum to pose a serious threat to Gonzaga.
Daum ranks No. 2 nationally in scoring, averaging 25.3 points per game. The sophomore forward tore it up in the Summit League title game, scoring 37 points and collecting 12 rebounds in a 79-77 win over Nebraska-Omaha. Daum shot 12 of 24 from the field, including 5-of-9 from distance.
A 16th seed has never won an NCAA Tournament game, but South Dakota State feels good about its chances after coming on strong late in the season. The Jackrabbits have won six straight and nine of their last 11 games.
The Jackrabbits also have last year’s NCAA Tournament experience to draw on for a chance at history.
“We’re a team full of surprises this year,” Daum told the Argus Leader. “People overlook us. With how we’re clicking right now, we’ll be a tough matchup for other teams.”
South Dakota is making second straight NCAA Tournament appearance after taking Maryland to the wire as a 12 seed a year ago. The Jackrabbits are 0-3 all-time in the tournament.