SAN DIEGO (AP) Gonzaga went into last year’s NCAA tournament as the No. 1 overall seed and the pressure took its toll, sending the Zags home after two games.
This year, they’re in a different frame of mind, back to their familiar underdog role and hoping to use it to their advantage against Arizona on Sunday and, hopefully, beyond.
”There isn’t as much pressure,” Gonzaga forward Sam Dower Jr. said Saturday from San Diego State’s Viejas Arena. ”I wouldn’t say we’re looser; we’re more aggressive. We have to be that Wichita State team last year and prove that we can be one of the best teams in the country.”
To have a chance at matching the Shockers’ run to the 2013 Final Four, the Bulldogs (29-6) will have to go through one of this year’s No. 1 seeds.
Though not the top overall seed like Gonzaga was a year ago, Arizona (31-4) still felt the pressure of being the West’s top team in its opener on Friday.
The Wildcats started off jittery against Weber State, failing to hit a field goal in the game’s opening 5 minutes and blowing most of a 21-point lead before pulling out 68-59 victory.
Arizona was solid as a higher seed last year when it reached the Sweet 16 for the second time in three years and has felt the pressure of being the chased this season after spending two months at No. 1 in The Associated Press poll.
”It’s a little different than last year as far as being targeted and stuff like that; we’ve been dealing with that all year,” Arizona junior guard Nick Johnson said. ”Seems like every single team gives us their best shot. You can see that same team probably a week later and they’re not playing nearly as hard and stuff like that. Pretty much all year has (been like that).”
Arizona will certainly face a tough challenge against the Zags.
The Wildcats were a popular pick to get knocked off in the third round against Oklahoma State, but Gonzaga beat the Cowboys and the calls for an upset have not waned much.
Here’s five things to look for when the mid-major Bulldogs meet the blue-blood Wildcats:
ALL ABOUT THE D: If you’re looking for good defense, this could be the game to watch. With length inside, harassing guards and an ability to get out to shooters quickly, Arizona has been one of the nation’s best teams on that side of the ball all season. The Wildcats are the nation’s top team in defensive efficiency, allowing 87.8 points per 100 possessions, are fourth in scoring defense (58.2 points per game) and fifth in shooting percentage against (37.9 percent). Gonzaga has been one of the nation’s better defensive teams for years, a cohesive unit that can play against any style, so it could get interesting.
STOPPING PANGOS: Gonzaga has a fairly balanced offense, but when Kevin Pangos gets going, the Zags are pretty tough to beat. The junior guard didn’t shoot particularly well in the West Coast Conference tournament, but opened the NCAAs with a huge game, scoring 26 points while hitting all 10 of his free throws in the final 1:31 of a foul-filled win over Oklahoma State. He will face some of the best perimeter defenders in college basketball the next round. Johnson and T.J. McConnell take it as a challenge to stop the opposing team’s best player and often do, shutting down Colorado’s Askia Booker, Utah’s Jordan Loveridge and Cal’s Justin Cobbs in the last month alone.
NOSTALGIC GAME: Gonzaga and Arizona has met once before in the NCAA tournament and, boy, was it a doozy. Arizona was the No. 1 seed in the 2003 tournament and had future NBA players Andre Iguodala, Channing Frye, Luke Walton on its roster. Still early in its rise to prominence, Gonzaga gave the Wildcats all they could handle, leading at halftime and nearly winning it on Blake Stepp’s 8-footer with 2 seconds left. Arizona won the game 96-95 in double overtime, but Gonzaga coach Mark Few remembers it fondly and has a Sports Illustrated picture from the game hanging in the basketball office.
HITTING 3s: Arizona has a big, athletic front line anchored by Kaleb Tarczewski, but needs to hit shots from the perimeter to keep opponents from packing it in. The Wildcats have been a decent 3-point shooting team, hitting 36 percent, but have had games where the shots just won’t fall. Arizona was on the mark against Weber State, making 7 of 14 from the arc, including two by sharpshooter Gabe York that got the Wildcats going after an early funk.
FREE THROWS: If the game gets tight and comes down to free throws, Gonzaga could have the advantage. Gonzaga’s top three scorers – Pangos, Dower and Gary Bell Jr. -all shoot at least 80 percent and the Zags sealed their win over Oklahoma State from the line. Arizona lost the Pac-12 championship game to UCLA in part because it went 6 for 16 on free throws and freshman Aaron Gordon, one of its best players, has been fighting a mental block from the line, hitting just 43 percent of his attempts.