Back in the tournament, Zags look for a longer stay
SEATTLE (AP) It's a rite of March: Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament.
It's another rite of March: Gonzaga out of the NCAA Tournament by the end of the first weekend.
The second-seeded Bulldogs (32-2) begin their 17th straight appearance in the tournament with a South Region game against No. 15 North Dakota State (23-9) on Friday.
The bigger goal for the West Coast Conference champs is to advance to the second weekend, something they haven't done since 2009. The last five years have all resulted in exits in their second game, including 2013, when coach Mark Few's team was a No. 1 seed but lost to Wichita State, which ended up making the Final Four.
''Every year, we went into it trying to win as many games as we possibly can,'' Few said. ''It's not about me, it's about serving this particular group. You want to make their dreams come to fruition and take them as far as they can. And when it's over, it's over.''
Asked to look back on any seasons that came to particularly disappointing endings, because of effort or otherwise, Few focused on last year, when the Zags, then eighth-seeded, had every right to get beaten badly - and did just that. They fell 84-61 to top-seeded Arizona, a game that got ugly early, after guard Kevin Pangos went down with an ankle injury.
''A lot of that was due to Arizona, how good they were and how great they were playing,'' Few said. ''Last year's team did as good a job as any I've coached of hitting the ceiling of what they're capable of.''
This year's team is aiming higher. At one point, the Zags won 22 in a row, a school record. The biggest change was the addition of Kyle Wiltjer, who left Kentucky after the 2013 season, not so much because he was unhappy there, but because he didn't see an opportunity to be the player he could be. At Gonzaga, he has thrived - gotten stronger, honed his skills and become an inside-outside threat that most teams don't have an answer for.
He averages 16.7 points and six rebounds. At 6-foot-10, he shoots 46 percent from 3-point range but also is second on the team in rebounds and blocks. Wiltjer was part of the 2012 championship run at Kentucky, where such things are expected.
''No one really expects us to make it all that way,'' he said.
When they look across the court, the Zags will see an up-and-coming program that looks a little like theirs did once. North Dakota State's arena is currently under renovation. The Bison, of the Summit League, have practiced in five different spots this season, including a high school, the minor-league hockey arena where their games are played, and a warehouse. They lift weights in what used to be a grocery store. ''I don't know that there's another team in the country that can say they lift in a grocery store and work out in a warehouse,'' said swingman A.J. Jacobson. ''But we've just tried to eliminate excuses and get better from having that'' circumstance.
The Bison beat Oklahoma in the first round last year, but outside of the winning DNA, this team doesn't look much the same. Three starters from that roster are gone, as is coach Saul Phillips, who left for Ohio. The underdog role - that remains the same. ''If you win, nobody expected you to win, but if you lose, you just lose,'' said senior Lawrence Alexander, who made a 3-pointer that sent last year's game against the Sooners into overtime.
Wiltjer isn't the only transfer making an impact with the Bulldogs. Guard Byron Wesley moved to Spokane from Southern California, which hasn't made the tournament since 2011. He's starting and averaging nearly 11 points and five rebounds. ''I've been watching the tournament since I was a little kid. It's a place I'd always dreamed of making one day,'' Wesley said. Other Gonzaga transfers: Eric McClellan (Vanderbilt) and Angel Nunez (Louisville).
Gonzaga leads the nation in shooting (52.4 percent), is 13th in shooting defense (38.4) and is fifth in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.56). And those were just the stats that impressed Bison coach David Richman the most. ''Those numbers just jump right out at you,'' he said. ''They score inside, score outside, score mid-level, they're good in transition. If they get going from inside and outside, it's going to be a long night.''