SALT LAKE CITY — The Gonzaga Bulldogs jogged out of the EnergySolutions Arena tunnel, ran to midcourt, locked arms, said a few words and started warming up on Wednesday afternoon.
It was as if they were preparing for any other game on any other day. They appeared to be feeling as much pressure as they might have when they were getting ready to take on an overmatched Lewis-Clark State team in late November. With all due respect to the Zags’ second-round opponent in the NCAA Tournament, No. 16 seed Southern (23-9), top-seeded Gonzaga isn’t sweating being in the national spotlight or the headline attraction for the West Regional in Salt Lake City.
And why should they? A No. 16 seed has never defeated a No. 1 seed, and the Bulldogs are in the NCAA Tournament for the 15th straight season. Only Duke, Kansas and Michigan State have longer current consecutive runs.
Gonzaga and Southern tip off at approximately 2:10 p.m. MDT on Thursday.
“We believe in ourselves and it feels great to be a No. 1 seed, but we believe that we belong and there is no pressure,” Gonzaga guard Kevin Pangos said. “We’re just going to go play and have fun out there.”
The Bulldogs appeared to be having fun during a light workout in front of several handfuls of fans in EnergySolutions Arena. Assistant coaches Tommy Lloyd, Ray Giacoletti and Donny Daniels put players through the paces while head coach Mark Few chatted with national broadcasters away from the action.
The Zags are all smiles right now, but they know that the fun won’t last if they don’t make some noise in this NCAA Tournament.
Gonzaga enters the tournament with the nation’s best record at 31-2 and is a No. 1 seed for the first time in the program’s history. The Bulldogs have never advanced past the Elite Eight, and they’ve never been more positioned to do so as they are with this year’s draw. It isn’t exactly now or never for Gonzaga, but not making a run as a top seed would be a disappointment.
“We feel like we are ready to prove ourselves,” Pangos said. “We believe in our team and our abilities and we’re confident going in. We’re going to take it one game at a time.”
Few is putting little stock into the hype of being a No. 1 seed and the outside pressure on his team to go far in this year’s tournament.
“We’re taking our normal approach into this,” Few said. “We have to come out and play our style and play our way and stay in attack mode. That’s how we have been all year and this team has been remarkably consistent all year. I wouldn’t guess that it would be any other way as we venture into the tournament now.”
As for Southern, the Southwestern Athletic Conference champions, it is ironic that the Jaguars are facing Gonzaga. Coach Roman Banks, who has led a remarkable turnaround in just two seasons, has used the Bulldogs as an example of building a program during discussions with his players this season.
When Banks took over the Southern program, it was in complete turmoil. The Jaguars were 28-93 in the four seasons before Banks became the head coach, including a program-worst 4-26 in the 2010-11 season. Southern had a one-year ban on NCAA postseason play and a reduction of scholarships because of APR penalties. Gonzaga defeated Southern 117-72 in 2010.
The Jaguars, however, rebounded faster than anyone could have expected and now face the program they aspire to be.
“All year long you hear Gonzaga in our locker room, pre-speeches and practices about working hard and building and how you have to play,” Banks said. “But the guys kinda looked at me and said, ‘Coach, Gonzaga.’ So that was a lasting moment and we’re anxious to get on the floor against them.”
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