The Gonzaga Bulldogs locked in their first round opponent on Thursday night after the Norfolk State Spartans squeaked out a narrow 54-53 victory over the Appalachian State Mountaineers.
The Spartans got out to a hot start in their play-in game, seemingly hitting every three they attempted to build a 36-20 lead at halftime thanks in large part to a 15-0 run midway through the half. It looked like Norfolk State was going to cruise into their showdown with the top overall seed, but the March Madness gods had other ideas as their offense disappeared in the second half while Appalachian State mounted its comeback. Norfolk State held on though, and now they get to see whether they can be UMBC 2.0 and upset a #1 seed (hope not!).
Game date: Saturday, March 20
Game time: 9:20 p.m. ET
TV channel: TBS
Online: NCAA March Madness Live
Location: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis
Meet the Opponent
Norfolk State Spartans, 17-7, KenPom #200
The Spartans won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Tournament to earn their spot in the dance led by senior guard DeVante Carter (15.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 4.0 apg). This is Norfolk State’s second appearance in the NCAA Tournament, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t made an impression in this competition. Mizzou fans will remember Norfolk State’s first go at the Tournament back in 2012, when the No. 15 Spartans upset the No. 2 Tigers 86-84 before losing by 34 points to Florida in the second round. Let’s hope things go a little differently for the Zags.
What to Watch For
The three-point line
Massive underdogs pretty much always need to be hot from the three-point line if they want to have a shot at pulling off an upset, and that is no different here. The Spartans showed in the first half on Thursday night that they can pour it in from the arc, and on the season they have been converting at a 37.4% rate from long distance which is good enough for 30th in the country. So they can make those shots if you let them. Gonzaga tends to prioritize stopping penetration and defending the paint, but the focus of this game should be running the Spartans off the three-point line and forcing them inside as they shoot a woeful 45.5% inside the arc.
Avoid the slow start
Gonzaga had a number of slow starts during conference play, and we’ve seen it in the past in its prior stints as a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament. It wouldn’t be the most surprising thing in the world to see it happen again considering (1) the Zags have had a longer layoff than most since they last played on March 9; and (2) the circumstances of living in a “controlled environment” this week may have blunted their ability to stay physically and mentally sharp. You don’t want to give an upset minded team any additional oxygen to fan those upset flames, particularly a school that has done it before even though the guys on the current roster were all kids the last time the Spartans were in the Tournament. Gonzaga is a 33.5 point favorite, which is a truly absurd number, so covering the spread is a big ask but a quick start to settle into the Tournament would be fantastic.
Playing in front of crowds
The Zags have only played in front of a crowd on a handful of occasions this season. There will be limited capacity in the arenas for the games, but after having none for most of the season I’m sure the players will love feeling some energy in the building beyond the energy provided from their own bench. That might give the Zags a little more juice as they begin their march to a title.
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