For the second time in program history, the Gonzaga Bulldogs were awarded a No. 1 seed by the NCAA Selection Committee. You never know how these things will turn out, but my gut reaction to the West region was that Gonzaga had a very manageable path to the Final Four.
Gonzaga will play the South Dakota State Jackrabbits (18-16) on Thursday, March 16. The “Jacks” made the tournament by winning the Summit League tournament. South Dakota State is no stranger to the tournament, as this will be its fourth appearance in the last six years (2012, 2013, 2016, 2017). The Jacks are led by versatile 6’9” big man Mike Daum who shot 57% on 2PA and 41.8% on 3PA (76-182) this season. However, oddsmakers don’t think Gonzaga will be troubled by SD State too much as the opening line of -23 is the biggest spread posted amongst the first round games at the moment.
A potential second round game between Vanderbilt (19-15) or Northwestern (23-11) will be interesting, with both programs hailing from power conferences. As first-time dancers, Northwestern will be the sentimental favorite to advance to the Round of 32, and its easy to envision a scenario where the Salt Lake City crowd will be rooting for them to pull off the upset against the Zags. Head Coach Chris Collins is listed in all the Coach of the Year discussions, and rightfully so, after taking over a moribund Northwestern program just four years ago. The Wildcats play a smart brand of basketball, and will undoubtedly give the Zags a tough game, but I think Gonzaga’s balance will be too difficult for them to overcome.
If Gonzaga is able to survive the opening weekend, potential matchups against Notre Dame/West Virginia in the Sweet 16 and a rematch against Arizona in the Elite 8 await. Notre Dame plays mistake-free basketball and won’t beat itself. Though the Irish start talented Bonzie Colson at center, he’s still 6’5” and will have his hands full with Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins.
West Virginia’s press is designed to speed up teams into mistakes and hurried shots, and Gonzaga will have to be very careful about protecting the ball and playing within the system. Starting two point guards will come in very handy against a team like West Virginia, but the Zags will need A+ focus from Josh Perkins and Nigel Williams-Goss to get a win.
The Zags have already beaten Arizona this season, but as we are constantly reminded, Allonzo Trier did not play in that game. Trier does provide a dynamic element to Arizona’s attack, and will present a tough matchup for the backcourt. However, should Gonzaga be able to knock off the ‘Cats for the second time this season, it would reach the program’s first Final Four and get a chance to cut down the nets in Glendale, Arizona.