NCAA Tournament – Gonzaga relishes rare under-the-radar role

Jeff LegwoldESPN Senior Writer4 minute read

DENVER — It’s been decades since Gonzaga was anything but a basketball powerhouse.

And the Bulldogs certainly flexed their collective muscles Friday night at Ball Arena with an 82-70 win over Grand Canyon University in a Western Regional first-round game.

The Bulldogs entered this year’s tournament as the No. 3 seed in the West Region, the third time they have been No. 3 since the start of their annual tournament camp in 1999. This 1999 team featured a nation in Gonzaga basketball, making a Cinderella run to the Elite Eight as the No. 10 seed in his first tournament appearance. The Bulldogs have appeared in every tournament since, reaching 12 Sweet 16s and reaching the national championship game twice. It’s a testament to what the Bulldogs have done that this year’s No. 3 seed has had a less pressure theme around it.

Especially for a team that was the No. 1 seed in each of its previous three tournament trips, including a title loss to Baylor in the 2021 tournament.

“I would just say from a pressure level perspective, I would say it takes something away from us not really being a No. 1 seed,” guard Rasir Bolton said this week. “And then everything else is really the same. It’s still the same basketball game… anyone can lose any day. So I don’t think anything changes. I think we have the same state of mind.”

Under coach Mark Few, Gonzaga has been seeded No. 1 more times – five times – than anything else. But not holding top line status didn’t change anything for the Zags.

“I think the rankings are more for everybody having fun with brackets and stuff,” said Few, who served as the school’s head coach for every tournament but the first. “Players and staff, it just becomes more our task, these guys do this and that and that really well. And if we don’t do anything about it then they can beat us.

“I would just say that as long as I’m in this thing now, every year it all seems to go down more to average as opposed to – we’ve played enough of these games 1-16 and you’re like, holy smoke. The last year I went out for the tip and Georgia State, I think they were bigger than us at dang near every position. And I’m like, that’s a 16 seed?”

Gonzaga “fell” to No. 3 in this tournament thanks to an early-season gauntlet that included losses to Texas (a No. 2 seed), Purdue (a No. 1 seed) and Baylor ( a No. 3 seed). Throw in the Dec. 14 loss to Loyola Marymount, a loss that ended his 75-game winning streak at home, and Gonzaga is still so slightly under the radar this time around.

The Bulldogs trace the innards of their 10-game winning streak to that loss to LMU and a ruthless one or two they built in those early losses to other heavyweights.

“They felt the disappointment, I think, early on and fought pretty well mentally, so it was a big challenge for our staff,” Few said. “Then I always say you have to hit the Zags standard, and they weren’t hitting the Zags standard in a lot of areas. So I still think it’s my job to kind of be the heaviest in that regard. Sometimes it’s all fun and games not being the daddy bear of the group.”

Drew Timme scored 21 points for third-seeded Gonzaga on Friday.Michael Ciaglo-USA TODAY Sports

Few said that the players also didn’t listen to “Jimmy and Johnny behind the keyboard in their mother’s basement” along the way.

On Friday night, they seemed comfortable in their current status as All-American Drew Timme, now the school’s all-time leading scorer, effectively scored 21 points. Timme had been limited to six points in the first half when Grand Canyon built a seven-point lead with just under six minutes before halftime. But from then on, Gonzaga was back to his comfort level, including a 20-6 run to open the second half.

“It’s a big, high-pressure event, and I felt like overall we were a little nervous, which is human nature,” Timme said. “And then the second half, we calmed down, we remembered. We are Gonzaga.”

Timme, a rare high-end senior in the basketball landscape, gives Gonzaga a level of comfort if the going gets tough. Bolton said this team also learned to “play blindly” along the way.

“I don’t really focus on rankings or anything anymore, I’m not No. 1 or I don’t care about records anymore,” Bolton said. “You just have to really come together and have to win games, and I think that has helped us a lot.”

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