Mark Few has led his squad back to Tournament for the 19th straight season, but the expectations have risen since his early days as an underdog. Few has built the Gonzaga Basketball program into a consistent national power, and added another WCC conference title to his resume this season. The Zags are also coming off their most successful season in history which saw them advance to their first Final Four, before losing to North Carolina in the National Championship. A return trip is obviously the goal for Few, but the road to San Antonio has the potential to pose multiple challenges for the Bulldogs. Gonzaga has the pieces and the experience to make this return, but as we have seen all season there have been no guarantees this season. Both of the possible first-round games will be played in Boise, Idaho which lies 6 hours south of Spokane. This is a short trek for an avid fan base that tends to travel across the country to support their team and should be a major advantage against teams mainly from the east coast.
The Bulldogs start their journey off with a matchup against the Spartans on UNC Greensboro out of the Southern Conference. This is a team that should not be overlooked by anyone in the Gonzaga camp, the Spartans won 27 games this year, including a win at NC State, but it is the loses that should worry Zags fans. They only lost 7 games and only one by more than 10 points, an opening game loss to UVA by 12. The Spartans have played good competition throughout the year and use their defensive tenacity to disrupt opponents game plans. They currently rank 6th in the country in points allowed per game with 62.4. The Zags currently rank 9th in the country in points scored per game, so this battle will be the determining factor in the game. In the end, most people will expect the Zags to advance due to their balance on both sides of the ball. The Spartans will certainly be able to compete on defense, but they will need to keep pace offensively which could prove too tall an order.
If the Bulldogs are able to make it past the Spartans they would face the winner of Ohio State and South Dakota State. This could be another potential upset game, but both opponents are familiar to the Bulldogs. Johnathan Williams was able to elevate the Zags past the Buckeyes earlier this season at the PK80. The game itself was not close, but Ohio State has shown vast improvement since that point having a strong showing in Big Ten play. The Buckeyes would pose a challenge in the form of Keita Bates-Diop a legitimate All-American candidate with a great all-around offensive game.
South Dakota State was the first opponent for the Bulldogs in last years tournament and have a star of their own in Power Forward Mike Daum. Daum is averaging 23 points per game to go along with 10 rebounds and has been the go-to guy for the Jacks throughout the season. SDSU has won 19 of their last 20 contest coming into the tournament and are a popular upset pick in the first round due to their offensive prowess. The Jacks currently rank 3 spots ahead of Gonzaga good for the 6th highest scoring offense in the country.
Regardless of who advances the Zags will be challenged the first week. No one would be shocked if they came out of Boise, but SDSU could have the second highest chance. Using the crowd to their advantage is essential if the Zags wish to have two first-round wins. The road ahead will not be any easier with possible opponents being Xavier, Michigan, and defending national champion North Carolina.