SAN DIEGO – A year after entering the NCAA tournament ranked No. 1 and top-seeded, Gonzaga’s trappings are much different.
When the Zags were announced as a No. 8 seed against Oklahoma State, immediately ensuing were analysts’ projections of an Oklahoma State-Arizona battle in the next round.
“People may say it’s not different, but it is,” said Gonzaga guard Kevin Pangos. “Last year, 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 by us.”
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“I’ve been trying not to watch ESPN and all that,” said fellow Gonzaga guard Gary Bell Jr. “We know we’re a good team. We just want to prove it to everybody.”
Said GU coach Mark Few: “Like I told our guys, we’re in a good spot right now, so we need to take advantage of it.”
It wasn’t until about 9 p.m. Saturday that Gonzaga gained the distinction of having beaten a nonconference team headed for the NCAA tournament, something that has been routine for the Zags since they started their 16-year streak of appearances.
New Mexico State, which lost to Gonzaga 80-68 on Dec. 7, beat Idaho for the Western Athletic Conference title and automatic spot.
Since 1999, Gonzaga has averaged 2½ nonleague victories a season over teams that went to the NCAA, which usually made it academic whether it wins the WCC tournament.
• The new NCAA rules curbing hand-checking could impact Gonzaga’s defense against Oklahoma State standout Marcus Smart. “He’s going to put a lot of things in the refs’ hands,” said GU assistant coach Tommy Lloyd.
• Gonzaga’s 69-68 victory last season at OSU came on Bell’s late trey, freed up by a “totally unscripted,” in Lloyd’s words, flare screen from then-senior Mike Hart. Ex-GU assistant Ray Giacoletti, now head coach at Drake, said this week he used the play on a DVD for his new team to demonstrate “just how to be successful without scoring.”
• Pangos said his turf toe is “a lot better,” but added, “We’re going to play through it and not think about it.”
• NCAA charters weren’t the picture of punctuality. Gonzaga’s flight out of Spokane on Wednesday night was about 2½ hours late picking the team up, and Arizona’s also was several hours behind.
• Gonzaga had the usual 40-minute practice on site, and planned another workout at the University of San Diego.
• Few renewed acquaintances with Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne. One of Few’s first coaching jobs, in 1988-89, was as an assistant at Sheldon High in Eugene, where Byrne was a 15-year-old player.
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