By Jim Meehan The Spokesman-Review
SAN DIEGO — Gary Bell Jr. knows what’s coming: 30-plus minutes of dealing with Oklahoma State standout guard Marcus Smart.
Oklahoma State forward Kamari Murphy understands his assignment: Jostling with Przemek Karnowski, who is five inches taller and outweighs Murphy by some 70 pounds.
Reduced to the simplest terms, Gonzaga (28-6) believes it has an advantage inside with Karnowski and leading scorer Sam Dower Jr. against their smaller counterparts. And Oklahoma State (21-12) feels like its trio of talented guards, led by the NBA-bound Smart, who took part in Senior Night festivities despite only being a sophomore, is among the best in the country.
If only it were that simple. Instead of playing on an 8.5-by-11 sheet of paper, Gonzaga and Oklahoma State will settle their NCAA tournament second-round game today at Viejas Arena, where both teams will introduce wrinkles designed to limit the other’s strengths.
“We feel great about those (interior) guys, and most nights they need to know we probably do have an advantage but it’s not going to be easy,” said Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd, who handled the Oklahoma State scouting report. “They’re going to trap really hard and they have a plan. We can’t get frustrated if it doesn’t go our way right away.”
As head coach Mark Few noted, “Sure, if you’re looking at it (inside) is probably the best advantage we have but last year (guard) Kevin (Pangos) played really well and really attacked them,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “But pretty much every game down the stretch we’ve been trying to play off our bigs.”
The 6-foot-4, 225-pound Smart, returning to form after a three-game suspension, has averaged 19.8 points, 6.4 assists, 5.2 rebounds and 4.5 steals in his past five games. Markel Brown checks in at 17.1 points and 3-point specialist Phil Forte is at 13.3 points.
Le’Bryan Nash, a 6-7, 235-pound forward who operates in the lane, averages 14.2 points.
“When he’s driving he tries to get into your body and draw fouls,” Bell said of Smart. “I just have to keep my hands back. We just want to make every shot tough for him. When we’re in the gaps helping and not leaving a guy on an island we’re usually good defensively.”
Smart has had at least 10 free throws attempts in 10 of his 30 games. He’s made 40 percent of his 3-pointers over his past six games.
“He can penetrate, shoot, he’s big, we post him up,” OSU coach Travis Ford said. “Teams are going to try different things but there’s not really one thing you can do that I’ve seen because he’s such a versatile point guard.
“And we have a few other weapons.”
Murphy, a 6-8, 220-pound sophomore, isn’t regarded as a primary offensive weapon but he will be a key figure at the defensive end. He’s defended a number of talented Big 12 posts — Joel Embiid of Kansas, Cameron Ridley of Texas and Baylor’s Cory Jefferson and Isaiah Austin, to name a few.
“We have to make them work,” Murphy said. “I’m not saying they don’t have stamina, but the more they have to work the less bang and bruise they have left in them. We need to run them, get them involved in ball screens and not let them stay stationary and clog up the paint.”
It’s a new world for the eighth-seeded Zags, who were one of four No. 1 seeds entering last year’s tournament.
“Last year we were talked about like Wichita State is this year,” Pangos said. “People were criticizing us and praising us and there was a lot of talk. This year we’re floating under the radar, which is fine with us.”
Along those same lines, players are aware they’re regarded as underdogs by most analysts.
“We’re trying to prove people wrong,” Bell said. “They obviously think Oklahoma State is going to win. We have to come out and show them.”
Gonzaga has had four consecutive win-one, lose-one appearances in the NCAAs. In 2009, GU won twice to advance to the Sweet 16 before falling to eventual national champion North Carolina. The Zags’ last first-round exit was against Davidson in 2008.
Oklahoma State has lost its last three tourney games since defeating Tennessee in 2009. The Cowboys are 0-5 all-time in the West Regional and 0-7 in NCAA/NIT games played west of Oklahoma City.
“I just want to get my first NCAA win as a college basketball player,” Brown said.
Oklahoma State started the season 16-3, dropped seven straight and finished by winning five of seven. Ten of OSU’s 12 losses were one- or two-possession games or in overtime.
“Hopefully you learn from every one of them,” Ford said. “We’ve gone over a lot of those situations.”