BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A handful of players from Gonzaga’s history-making Final Four team have moved on.
As a program, though, the Zags are right where they expect to be: In the tournament, playing well and, as always, a threat to stick around for a while.
Gonzaga is in March Madness for the 20th straight time, making it only the sixth program to accomplish that. Hoops fans have heard of the others: Kansas, North Carolina, Arizona, Duke, Michigan State.
Despite losing four of their top five scorers, including lottery pick Zach Collins, to the NBA and other corners of pro basketball, the Bulldogs (30-4) rolled through the 2017-18 season, winning their conference regular-season and tournament titles en route to a No. 4 seed in the West. Their path to the program’s second Final Four starts Thursday against 13th-seeded UNC-Greensboro (27-7), which last made the tournament in 2001, when Gonzaga was in Year 3 of its current streak.
“Gonzaga is basically, like, almost an ideal blueprint for what a mid-major program aspires to be,” Spartans forward Jordy Kuiper says.
Part of the sustained success involves not taking anything from granted, especially this time of year.
Junior guard Josh Perkins has been harping on the mantra “Little things matter in March” — a nod to the notion that every rebound and every loose ball could be the difference between going home early and getting to San Antonio for the Final Four.
“We’re heading into the tournament with a little chip on our shoulder because of memories of last year,” senior Silas Melson said, referencing the 71-65 loss to North Carolina in the final. “I wouldn’t say it’s a burden. It’s more motivation than anything.”
Coach Mark Few said he has walked the fine line between using last year — when the Zags finally made the Final Four after years of close calls — as fuel, without putting the burdens of the close call on a team that is fundamentally different.
“I needed to take a step back and be fair to them,” Few said. “Holding them to the standard of last year’s team, it was probably very unfair for a couple of months there. I reached the point in January or February where I backed off and let them be who they are. They’ve definitely thrived with that.”
Other things to watch in the West region Thursday:
DIOP VS. THE DAUMINATOR: The matchup between No. 5 Ohio State and No. 12 South Dakota State features two of the country’s best forwards.
It pits Big Ten player of the year Keita Bates-Diop (19.4 points, 8.8 rebounds) against Summit League Player of the Year Mike Daum (23 and 10), aka “The Dauminator.” Daum is one of only three Division I players to average a double-double this season.
The 5 vs. 12 upset has become so common it can’t really be seen as an upset anymore. Especially not in this case. This game has been targeted by no fewer than a dozen pundits as ripe for a Jackrabbits win. South Dakota State is in its third straight tournament. Last year, it came in as a 16 seed and was playing nose-to-nose with Gonzaga for 35 minutes before falling 66-46.
This year: “Obviously, expectations are really different for us,” Daum said. “We’re a group of guys who play really well together.”
COUGARS, AZTECS DANCE AGAIN: In Wichita, sixth-seeded Houston (26-7) will make its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2010 when it faces No. 11 seed San Diego State (22-10).
The once-proud Cougars have been to five Final Fours, including three straight by the Phi Slama Jama teams of 1982-84, but have not won a game in the tournament since that last foray. But their coach, Kelvin Sampson, has some experience making deep runs, including a Final Four trip when he was with Oklahoma.
San Diego State is back in the tournament under Brian Dutcher, who’s in his first season in charge but is no stranger to this stage. He was on Steve Fisher’s bench for eight previous NCAA trips.
ROLLING WOLVERINES: Michigan earned the No. 3 seed in the West Region after five straight wins to cap the regular season and four wins in four days to win a second straight Big Ten Tournament title.
The streaking Wolverines (28-7) will face No. 14 seed Montana on Thursday night in Wichita.
Michigan is certainly familiar with this stage, featuring four players who were part of its Sweet 16 team a year ago. Among them are Moe Wagner, one of the tournament’s breakout stars, and Muhamma-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, who also played in the NCAA Tournament the previous season.