Gonzaga got the seed it wanted, earning the No. 1 spot in the West Region of the NCAA tournament.
The Zags have a seemingly easy opening-round game, facing a team that won its only NCAA tournament game 20 years ago. It gets quite a bit tougher for Gonzaga after that.
Following an opening game against Southern University on Thursday in Salt Lake City, the Zags will have to get through a gauntlet of good teams.
Ohio State, Kansas State, New Mexico, Pittsburgh, Arizona and Wisconsin are all in the West. Throw in wild cards like Wichita State, Mississippi and Notre Dame and, yeah, the team that gets through the Staples Center in Los Angeles to Atlanta will certainly have earned it.
“That’s the biggest thing in this tournament: You can’t look past anybody,” Wisconsin forward Mike Bruewitz said on Sunday after the 68-team NCAA bracket was announced. “We’ve proven it and everybody else in the country has proven it, that anybody can go down on any night. That’s going to make for a wild tournament.”
There certainly should be some good games in the West.
Eighth-seeded Pittsburgh (24-8) is back in the NCAA tournament after missing its dance card last season and will face a tough first game against rising mid-major Wichita State (26-8), the West’s ninth seed.
New Mexico (29-5), the third seed, was the champion out of the conference with the best RPI, the Mountain West, and will open with No. 14 seed Harvard (19-9), which played its opening round at the Lobos’ home court last season after making the NCAA field for the first time since 1946.
One of the more intriguing matchups anywhere in the bracket will take place Friday at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, where mercurial and sometimes maniacal Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson faces the badgering Badgers of Wisconsin.
The Badgers played in the rugged Big Ten and are rough, even by that conference’s standards. Wisconsin finished 10th nationally in scoring defense at 56 points per game and coach Bo Ryan is sure to devise a scheme to hassle Henderson, who averaged over 24 points per game while leading the Rebels to the SEC tournament title and an automatic NCAA bid.
Thing is, it might play right into Henderson’s hands.
The emotional junior seems to thrive on adversity, using the negative energy to motivate himself. Of course, he sometimes gets a little carried away – he’s notorious for taunting opposing fans in their own gym— so his coach occasionally has to step in and take some of the wild out of his eyes.
“He’s an exciting player. Sometimes I try to remind him, passion is good, emotion is bad,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. “I don’t want some of the things (he does on the court) to take away from the fact that he’s a very good basketball player.”
One game to keep an eye on is No. 11 seed Belmont against No. 6 Arizona.
The Wildcats (25-7) are long, athletic and deep. One of the problems they’ve had this season, particularly the last half, has been defending the perimeter. That just happens to be the Bruins’ specialty.
Belmont (26-6) finished the season 12th in 3-point field goals made and was 21st at just over 38 percent. Ian Clark was the best 3-point shooter in the country at 46.3 percent.
Get going from the arc and Belmont could pull off the upset for its first NCAA tournament win in six tries.
“They put you in those compromising positions, and it’s really what I’ve said since October: it’s so important to defend the three-point shot,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said.
“It’s a monster we’re dealing with here in the opening round. That doesn’t mean we can’t do it, but playing Belmont, every coach looks at their ability to shoot and it’s scary. We have to do a good job in that area as does every team who plays them.”
Most opponents feel the same way about Gonzaga.
The Bulldogs are a superb defensive team, have good shooters, a dynamic player in 7-foot center Kelly Olynyk and a powerful force inside with Elias Harris. Gonzaga doesn’t have many weaknesses, which is why it earned its first No. 1 rank at the end of the season and its first in the NCAA tournament as well.
“It’s a great honor to be grouped with that type of caliber of teams,” Olynyk said. “There (are) a lot of people they could have slotted into that spot. It was great they elected us to be a No. 1 seed. It’s a great honor not only for ourselves, but for the program making steps they haven’t made before.”
Now it’s time for the Bulldogs to take the next step, which won’t be easy with a region like the West.