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Gonzaga's NCAA Tournament Outlook: Interior play will determine success

Sam Dower and David Stockton...the key to success in the NCAA Tourney  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Sam Dower and David Stockton...the key to success in the NCAA Tourney (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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The point of this post is to discuss and analyze Gonzaga's path in the NCAA Tournament.  I find that to be incredibly ironic.  This is a team that, throughout the season, has largely defied logic both in very good and very, very bad ways.  The path Gonzaga took to this moment is truly the interesting one.  It started with a brutal nonconference schedule made worse by poor play, then it continued with some signs off life around the New Year which only gave way to some faceplants in conference play.  Now, Gonzaga is at their peak.  Coming off a resounding success at the West Coast Conference tournament, the Zags have not dropped a game in over a month.  The nine-game winning streak has been a combination of improved backcourt play and a renewed commitment to team defense.

Now that the brackets have been unveiled, let's take an all-too-soon look at the path Gonzaga has this year to reach their ultimate goal.  After the jump, I'll discuss where I see this team finishing the season with a deeper look at Gonzaga's first opponent and their potential third round opponent.

Max did an absolutely tremendous job outlining the nuances of St. John's basketball in his post last night.  Under Steve Lavin, the Johnnies have risen from the doldrums of the Big East and have given Madison Square Garden the quality of college basketball it has lacked for so long.  Personally, I have been smitten by the style that St. John's plays all year.  Anyone will tell you that Steve Lavin has maximized virtually everything he can from the talent on this roster.  Long story short for Gonzaga is that they must play their most outstanding game of the year, particularly on defense.  This is a team that is willing to get up and down the court and run teams of out the gym.  While their three-point shooting is nothing to write home about, their ability to run out on teams is simply something I don't believe the Zags have seen all season.  If I am Mark Few, there's no doubt in my mind that I would have the UCLA-St. John's game on loop from February 5th of this season.  In that game, UCLA big man Joshua Smith scored 19 points and really exposed St. John's inability to consistently defend the post.  If the Zags can establish Rob, Elias, and Sam early and often on Thursday night, the Zags can make it a long return flight home for St. John's.

Scanning the rest of the Southeast region, there are a number of intriguing teams in Gonzaga's side of the bracket.  Assuming they do enough to get by Wofford, the Cougars of BYU will be waiting for the winner of Gonzaga/St. John's.  The Cougars have battled their demons this season with the dismissal of Brandon Davies from the team for a violation of university code.  Beliefs on the code aside, Davies has been missed dearly.  Since he was kicked off the team, the Cougars have been upset by New Mexico and were not convincing in two MWC Tournament games against TCU and New Mexico against before getting waxed by San Diego State in the MWC Championship.  They are, without a doubt, walking wounded but they have the great equalizer: The Jimmer.  Jimmer Fredette has been the most exhilerating player to watch in the 2010-11 season and he is a guy the whole country will be watching to see if he can produce his best Steph Curry impression and lead BYU to a deep tourney run.

At this point, I feel obligated to tell you that I (typically a very, very pessimistic Gonzaga fan when completing my bracket), have the Bulldogs advancing to the Elite Eight.  In fact, it is my belief that the winner of the SJU/GU game will head off to the Elite Eight.  Assuming GU gets past the Johnnies and BYU, awaiting them will be either Michigan State, UCLA, or Florida who has to be the weakest two-seed of the bunch.  I love the Zags' or Red Storm's chances against any of those teams and think that one of them will be taking on Pitt for a Final Four berth.  Unfortunately, the run will end there as Pittsburgh seems to have a nice path carved out for Jamie Dixon's first Final Four berth.  The Panther's experience, particularly in the backcourt, is something every team in the tournament envies and it makes them a very legit threat to cut down the nets in Houston.

Yep, I see this as an Elite Eight team.  Such a far cry from what I would have told you a month and a half ago.  That's why we love college basketball!  What does your path look like for the Zags to get to Houston?

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