Gonzaga finally looking like the Zags we all love

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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DENVER -- No city demonstrated double-digit destruction like Denver did Thursday.

The Mile High City had an underdog trifecta, something that's unlikely to be duplicated in any other pod in this tournament.

Gonzaga, an 11 seed in the Southeast Regional, wrecked shop on No. 6 St. John's 86-71 in the final game in Round of 64 action at the Pepsi Center. The cruise-control "W" contrasted with what lower-seeded brethren Morehead State and Richmond did earlier in the day; the Eagles and Spiders dramatically pulled out victories to make it to Saturday.

"I'm just tickled pink, I guess, or whatever the saying is," Bulldogs coach Mark Few said upon plopping down to the podium at the postgame presser.

It was Gonzaga's best game of the season. Easily. The best sign for this team and its fans: the second-best game, according to Steven Gray, was the WCC title game, which preceded this one. The Zags defeated St. Mary's 75-63 in that one. So ... here comes a Gonzaga tournament run? No one's going there yet. Some guy named Jimmer stands in the way. (More on him and that matchup in a few.)

Because of the team's makeup and size up front, Few sort of took fleeting offense at the seeding his team received. They prepped all week as the superior team.

"We didn't consider ourselves a lower seed. We just knew it was a number that some random group assigned us," Few said. "We went into this game thinking we should win. That was the mindset as soon as the matchup popped up."

They played like the better team Thursday night. Gonzaga took a 15-14 lead with 15:14 left in the first half, then never looked back. The Bulldogs shot a very impressive 62.5 "effective field-goal percentage" from the floor. Effective field-goal percentage (referred to as eFG%) is a stat that properly weighs 3-point shots in correlation with 2-point ones. The Zags hit 9 of their 15 attempts from deep, led by Gray's four, boosting their broad field-goal percentage up from 53.8 percent.

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If you're eFG% cracks 60 percent, you're probably going to win.

If you would like to move away from stats, that's fine, just know that this could have been so much worse for Steve Lavin's team -- Gonzaga shot terrifically in spite of Robert Sacre's 4-of-11 effort in the paint.

Gonzaga also <i>moved</i> the Johnnies around like they aren't accustomed to. Seems like every game the Bulldogs attempt to shed the "soft" label; few opponents better catalyze that cause than rugged St. John's.

"I think people are seeing that Sacre, Harris, Kelly Olynyk and Sam Dower -- that's a big, physical front line," Few said. "We go into every game thinking we have an advantage with those four."

Then there's the experience factor. Gonzaga has not missed an NCAA tournament since its current players were in grade school. The Red Storm hadn't played on the big stage since 2002. Like that, St. John's and its nine seniors saw their season swiftly cease to exist.

Did lack of tournament experience and exposure play into the result?

"I think it helped. I really think it helped," Few said. "Steve and Rob have been there a lot. Elias [Harris] went through it last year. Meech has been there. This is his third year through it now. Kelly and Sam went through it last year a little bit. ... Most impressive thing of the night, I think, is Marquise Carter's first NCAA tournament game. I mean, to come in and go, you know, 24 [points], six rebounds and six assists is pretty amazing against a quick, athletic, tough group of St. John's guards."

Gonzaga's not like Morehead State or Richmond. It's got a tournament reputation, one that has been twisted a bit due to underperformance according to seed, but it's still Gonzaga. Teams see the name and there's an affiliation with March success.

It's only one game, but it's another opening-round victory for Few. His team has won 10 of its 14 first-round games now. A few months back, Gonzaga wasn't this good. It was struggling and injured and getting waxed by teams like Washington State.

Games like that had Harris doubting himself and the team's ability.

"I'm not going to lie -- there was a lot of pressure on me at the beginning of the season," he said, adding that it was all self-applied pressure that compounded after a bad start and untimely injuries. "My head was getting all crazy and I was losing confidence," Harris said. "But the last six, seven, eight weeks, I know what I'm capable of."

The team, as well. Beating St. John's, a team that killed top-seeded Duke in Madison Square Garden this year, along with a handful of other teams in this field, means something. Even if lasts until only Saturday afternoon, it still means something.

"The expectation issue, absolutely," Few said. "I think we had a great learning process this year for our players, our staff, our fans, people who follow the program. ... I think that's kind of what got these guys going."

Looking ahead, the Zags get BYU. There is an injury to report: Carter landed awkwardly on his left wrist near the end of the game, and he had a tight ice wrap on it once he got to the locker room.

"It's sore, but nothing I can't handle," he said.

Afterward, in the locker room, Few sat in a leather chair, legs crossed and looked at his folded-up stat sheet. He peered at it as he made conversation to those around him. Few spoke about BYU, how good it is, and how he can relate to the team -- or situation, at the very least -- Cougars coach Dave Rose has this year.

"They've been so captivating to watch," Few said. "I have so much respect for Dave Rose and how he runs his program. I've watched them a lot. Having Adam [Morrison], I think I know what they're going through with Jimmer and all the attention."

Attention only intensifies as rounds continue, and Saturday night, Denver gets a game the country will absolutely love: the most popular player in college basketball against March's annual bandwagon team. The appetizer will be two double-digit seeds playing for the Sweet 16.

Before the games begin, we've already won.

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