Zags get No. 1 seed in NCAA tourney, play Southern

Once Mark Few saw the names of Miami and Duke pop up as No. 2 seeds in other regions, the long-tenured Gonzaga coach knew there would be another first to check off for the 2013 season.

No controversy here. Top-ranked Gonzaga is a No. 1 seed for the first time in school history.

“I think there was still that apprehension about whether or not we were going to be a No. 1 or No. 2,” Few said. “You can’t help but for whatever reason, get into it even though I could have easily seen them put us on the 2 line and I wouldn’t have had a problem with that. I’m glad that they acknowledged the year these guys had.”

The best season in Gonzaga’s history was rewarded Sunday when the Bulldogs (31-2) were given the top seed in the West Region of the NCAA tournament. The Bulldogs will open the tournament on Thursday in Salt Lake City against No. 16 seed Southern in the second round.

Earning a No. 1 seed adds another notch in a season of new accomplishments for Gonzaga. They enter the tournament with 31 wins, the most in school history. The No. 1 ranking in the AP poll was another first for the Bulldogs and they now have a paved path to the Final Four where they don’t have to leave the West Coast.

Between the No. 1 ranking and now the No. 1 seed, Few has allowed his players an opportunity to savor what the tiny Jesuit school has accomplished because he says they are such a grounded, low maintenance group., who has handled all the attention without issue.

“You’ve got to savor this being a No. 1 seed, being No. 1 in the nation,” Gonzaga forward Mike Hart said. “You have to realize how special that is. To do it here at Gonzaga, a storied program that has done a lot of things, but those are two things it hasn’t done, you definitely savor it and cherish it. But at the same time, you have to have that forward mentality looking forward to that next game and understand that you’re only in this position because of how you’ve played.”

There was debate about whether Gonzaga’s resume was worthy of a No. 1 seed, but the Bulldogs enter the tournament having won 14 straight games. Their last loss came on a buzzer-beater at Butler in the middle of January.

Since their rise to prominence, the Zags have always played a brutal nonconference schedule to try to build a resume for March. This year was no different. In a scheduling quirk, they played five teams from the Big 12 — West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma State — and beat them all. They also beat Clemson of the ACC and Washington State of the Pac-12, plus a bunch of opponents from lesser leagues. The result was that Gonzaga ranked No. 6 in the RPI earlier this week — behind Duke, New Mexico, Louisville, Miami and Indiana — but only 72nd in strength of schedule among 347 teams.

Gonzaga was 8-2 this season in games against teams that made the tournament, including three wins over West Coast Conference rival Saint Mary’s.

“In our judgment, that’s a very complete and very strong basketball team,” NCAA tournament committee chair Mike Bobinski said after the brackets were announced.

This will be the 15th straight NCAA appearance for the Bulldogs, but for the first time since 2006 when Adam Morrison was in consideration for being the national player of the year, they will go in as a huge favorite and not with the tag of being plucky upstarts. The 15th straight tournament appearance trails only Kansas, Duke and Michigan State for active current streaks.

Gonzaga previously was a No. 2 seed in 2004 and a No. 3 seed in 2005 and 2006 and in none of those three appearances did the Bulldogs match what they accomplished in 1999 when they made their only regional final as a No. 10 seed. In 2004 and 2006, the Bulldogs were bounced in the round of 32 and they have not made the round of 16 since 2006.

The difference this time is the roster that Few has put together, with balance, depth and experience across the board. Seven-foot center Kelly Olynyk has developed into an All-America candidate, thanks to his 17.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game after redshirting a year ago. Elias Harris and Kevin Pangos both averaged in double figures scoring for the season, and the Bulldogs have a rotation of between eight and 10 players deep depending on the situation.

Should Gonzaga get past Southern — who the Bulldogs beat 117-72 in 2010 in Spokane — they would face either Pittsburgh or Wichita State in the third round. Few said he hadn’t taken time to examine a region that also includes Ohio State, New Mexico and Kansas State, instead saying he was more concerned about whether former assistant Leon Rice made the tournament with Boise State.

“It’s a great honor and a lot of fun when we heard the message at first, but now it’s back to business,” Harris said. “We know what we have to do in order to be successful and that’s exactly what we have to prepare for now the next couple of days.”

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