All Gonzaga did this weekend in the NCAA Tournament at KeyArena was take care of business. But it felt like an achievement. On Sunday, Gonzaga made a mockery of Iowa's lauded defense, shooting an unbelievable 61.5 percent from the field (62.5 percent from three-point range) en route to an 87 to 68 win and a spot in the Sweet 16. There was certainly a nervous optimism in the air before tip-off, after the Zags played a less than impressive opening game against North Dakota State (though some of that might be attributed to kicking off two weeks of rust after the early end of the West Coast Conference tournament) and Iowa blew out Davidson. Leading up to the Iowa game, Zags fans and friends I talked to ranged the emotional spectrum from extremely guarded hope to full-on panic. No one exuded a we got this confidence. The pessimism stemmed from a five-year Sweet 16 drought and concerns that Gonzaga blowing tournament games was no longer a string of events but the program's identity.
But then the game started. Kyle Wiltjer led the way with 24 points on 10 of 12 shooting (including hitting his first six shots). Seeing Wiltjer's shot in person is breathtaking. His form and the way the ball often doesn't even seem to touch net on his deep three-point attempts make him the most aesthetically pleasing shooter I've ever seen live (and that includes guys like Ray Allen). Kevin Pangos, Domantas Sabonis, Przemek Karnowski, and Eric McClellan (who came in as a game-changing defensive stopper when Gary Bell Jr. was faltering) all delivered sterling performances, and what was supposed to be a battle tuned into a blowout.
Gonzaga now finds itself one win away from its first Elite Eight appearance in Mark Few's 16-year tenure as head coach. Even better for the Zags, they match up in the Sweet 16 on Friday against a UCLA team that they manhandled earlier this season 87 to 74 on the Bruins' home court. (Though, unfortunately, playing the Bruins means we get bombarded video of Adam Morrison crying after Gonzaga's heartbreaking 2006 NCAA Tournament loss to UCLA. Please gouge out my eyes.)
It's now Elite Eight or bust for the Bulldogs. If Mark Few can't make it to the next step with this ultratalented team and this draw, Zags fans are going to be catatonic come Friday night. Really, anything after that game—including a potential matchup with Duke for a spot in the Final Four—is a bonus. Gonzaga proved this past weekend in Seattle that they might be the best team in college basketball not named Kentucky. It's time to take care of business once again.
Here are a few other takeaways from the weekend at KeyArena:
- The games tipped off on Friday with the Nothern Iowa Panthers squaring off against the Wyoming Cowboys. Wyoming's Derek Cooke Jr. got the action going with this monster dunk... ...only for the refs to call a charge. It seems like a huge overstatement, but the Cowboys never really recovered from having this tone-setting moment wiped away and lost 71 to 54. The NCAA has to do something about calls like this. While they adhere to the rules, freakish highlight plays shouldn't be negated by defensive players who choose to stand still instead of actually playing defense and trying to challenge shots.
- As mentioned, Gonzaga had no trouble with Iowa, but the 15-seed North Dakota State Bison tried to give the Bulldogs a scare on Friday night before falling 86 to 76. The spark for the Bison came from an unlikely source: backup forward Dexter Werner. Physically, Werner didn't look like he belonged on the court. His husky six foot six inch, 235-pound North Dakota build looked more like the body of a Division III football lineman than a Division I basketball player. Despite averaging 8.4 points per game, Werner lit up the Zags for a career-high 22 points, abusing NBA prospect Domantas Sabonis. It didn't make logical sense to the eyes, but it was a sight to be seen.
- Davidson got demolished 83 to 52 by Iowa in its lone tourney game. While the Wildcats' offense was top 10 in the country this season, it turns out it's hard to match up against Big 10 size when your starting "center" and "power forward" are respectively six foot seven and six foot four. The only way Davidson could've had a chance was if Stephen Curry somehow found some extra eligibility and suited up for the Wildcats once again.
- The most fascinating player to watch in Seattle was UC Irvine's seven foot six inch center Mamadou Ndiaye. His size is truly a sight to behold. He towered over Louisville power forward (and probable first-round NBA draft pick) Montrezl Harrell, and unlike most guys his height he actually has a dash of bulk to his frame. While the sophmore's game is limited—he runs with all the fluidity of a wounded hippo—the crowd in KeyArena absolutely erupted the multiple times he threw down dunks. The inexplicable thing is that, despite his height, Ndiaye has zero shot-blocking instinct. He just can't get his body and hands in the right place. It actually seems like he's exerting effort to put them in the wrong place. He only managed one block, and that's a shame because UC Irvine was thisclose to springing the major upset, ultimately falling 57 to 55. The Seattle site got a lot less entertaining with the departure of Ndiaye and the Anteaters. (Oh, did I forgot to mention UC Irvine's mascot is an anteater? Ugh. So bummed they lost.)
- Louisville closed out the NCAA Tournament's first weekend by punching its ticket to the Sweet 16 with a 66 to 53 win over Northern Iowa. While the Cardinals were in command all game, Louisville's Wayne Blackshear snuffed out any potential UNI comeback with an emphatic and emotionally crushing fast-break block with four minutes left in the game. It was also fun hearing KeyArena get loud with sarcastic cheers directed at the (admittedly shaky in favor of Louisville) refs late in the game. Sure would be nice if there was...I dunno...an NBA team to get local fans creating noise like that found at KeyArena this weekend...