The greatest sporting event in the world, as Gonzaga coach Mark Few likes to call the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, has returned after being sidelined by COVID-19 last year.
The Zags were a projected No. 1 seed and among the 2020 tournament title contenders. A year later, Gonzaga has ascended to the top overall seed and the tournament favorite.
The top-ranked Zags open against 16th-seeded Norfolk State on Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis with an added bonus — likely the largest audience to watch one of their games this season.
Gonzaga (26-0) played in fan-free environments most of the season and was limited by COVID protocols to 200 in attendance for each of its last four home games. Bankers Life Fieldhouse will be allowed to seat about 4,500 inside the 20,000-seat facility, but that might seem like a full house compared with GU’s first 26 games.
“I’m really fired up for that,” Few said. “It’s been a long year. We didn’t get cleared for parents and family members pretty much until the last weekend of the (regular) season. It means the world for the players to just have all the people with them throughout their lives, helping them on this journey, to be there in person.
“We have a lot of great fans and supporters that have helped us grow this program and they haven’t been able to watch us at all. I know they’re excited to get to the games and support us.”
The Zags are making their 22nd straight NCAA appearance, trailing Kansas (31) and Michigan State (23) for the longest active streak.
Another streak they would like to extend: The Zags have won 11 consecutive first-round games since Stephen Curry dropped 40 points to lead Davidson past Gonzaga in the 2008 tourney opener.
The Zags, favored by 33 points, have had three different experiences in their previous 1-vs.-16 matchups. They held off Southern 64-58 in 2013 with the crowd in Salt Lake City squarely behind the No. 16 seed. They pulled away in the second half for a 66-46 victory over South Dakota State in 2017 and throttled Fairleigh Dickinson 87-49 in 2019.
Corey Kispert started in the latter game and Joel Ayayi played six minutes. They’re the only Zags in the rotation with NCAA tournament experience wearing a GU uniform.
“Up until that Virginia (loss to UMBC) a few years ago, a (men’s) one seed had never lost (to a 16),” Kispert said. “It had never been done, so every time you hear that you have to dial in your focus.
“If you lose, you go home. There’s no cupcakes, no guarantees.”
In case another reminder was necessary, No. 15 Oral Roberts defeated No. 2 Ohio State on Friday.
In 2012, Norfolk State shocked second-seeded Missouri in the opening round. “We messed up some brackets,” said center Kyle O’Quinn, who scored 26 points. “We even messed up my bracket.”
The MEAC tournament champion Spartans (17-7) relied on defense and Jalen Hawkins’ 24 points off the bench to edge Appalachian State 54-53 Thursday in the First Four.
“We’ve won seven in a row and nine of our last 10, so we have a level of confidence,” coach Robert Jones said in a postgame television interview. “We know that Gonzaga is like the Lakers of college basketball, with three All-Americans. We understand the task at hand and it’s going to be a tough task.”
Jones hopes the team’s multiple defensive schemes can bother the Lakers, er, Zags.
“We want you to think so much about what we’re going to do that you take away from what you try to plan for,” Jones said. “You’re going to see different combinations and trust and believe we’re going to give Gonzaga the full clip. What do we have to lose, right? We’re going to give them everything we got.”
The Zags plan on doing the same.
“You have to hit the floor ready to go,” Kispert said. “There’s really no room for error and you make one too many mistakes and you’re done. It’s all about creating that energy from the get-go and hopefully translating it to the floor because every team, including us, has weak spots and it’s one-and-done from here on out.”