NCAA Tournament – Gonzaga enjoys a rare under-the-radar role

Jeff LegwoldESPN senior writerRead for 5 minutes

Drew Timme puts an exclamation mark on Gonzaga’s win with a dunk

Drew Timme flushes the two-handed dunk, leaving Gonzaga on 17 late in the second half.

DENVER — It’s been decades since Gonzaga was anything but a basketball powerhouse.

And the Bulldogs certainly flexed their collective muscles Friday night at Ball Arena with a get-loose, we’re done 82-70 victory over Grand Canyon University in a West regional first-round game.

The Bulldogs rolled into this year’s tournament as No. 3 in the West Region, their third time being No. 3 since their annual tournament camp began in 1999. That 1999 team introduced a country to Gonzaga basketball and made Cinderella run to the Elite Eight as the No. 10 seed in his first tournament appearance. The Bulldogs have been to every tournament since then, reaching 12 Sweet 16s and reaching the national championship game twice. It’s a testament to what the Bulldogs have done that this year’s No. 3 seed has a less pressure theme.

Especially for a team that has been No. 1 in each of its previous three tournament tours, including a title game loss to Baylor in the 2021 tournament.

“From the pressure level aspect, I would say it takes something away from us to not really be a No. 1 seed,” security guard Rasir Bolton said this week. “And then everything else is really the same. It’s all the same basketball game… anyone can lose any day. So I don’t think anything changes. I think we have the same mindset.”

Under the watch of coach Mark Few, Gonzaga has been a No. 1 seed more times – five times – than anything else. But not holding on to top-line status hasn’t changed anything for the Zags.

“I think the format is more for anyone messing around with the brackets and stuff,” said Few, who has been the school’s head coach for every tournament but the first. “The players and the staff, it just becomes more of our job, these guys are doing this and this and this very well. And if we don’t do something about it, then they can beat us.”

“I’d just like to say, as long as I’m in this thing now, every year everything seems to shrink more to average rather than — we’ve played enough of those 1-16 games and you’re like, holy smoke. Last year I walked up to the tip and Georgia State, I think they were bigger than us at every position. And I’m like, this is a 16-seed?”

Gonzaga “fell” to a No. 3 in this tournament thanks to a gauntlet early in the season, including losses to Texas (a No. 2 seed), Purdue (a No. 1 seed), and Baylor (a No. 3 seed ). Throw in the December 14 loss to Loyola Marymount, a loss that ended its 75-game winning streak at home, and Gonzaga is so slightly under the radar this time around.

The Bulldogs trace the guts of their now 10-game winning streak to that loss to LMU and a few insensitivities they built up in those early losses to the other heavyweights.

“They felt the disappointment, I think, early and pretty much beat themselves up mentally, so that was a big challenge for our staff,” Few said. “Then I always say you have to hit the Zags standard, and they didn’t hit the Zags standard in a lot of areas. So I always feel like my job is to be kind of the toughest in that regard. Sometimes it’s It’s not all fun and games are the papa bear of the bunch.”

Drew Timme scored 21 points for third-seeded Gonzaga on Friday.Michael Ciaglo-USA TODAY Sports

Few said the players along the way also didn’t listen to “Jimmy and Johnny at the keyboard in their mother’s basement”.

By Friday night, they looked comfortable in their current status as All-American Drew Timme, now the school’s all-time leading scorer, efficiently scored 21 points. Timme had been held to six points in the first half as Grand Canyon had built a seven-point lead with just under six minutes to halftime. But from then on, Gonzaga found his comfort level, including a 20-6 run to open the second half.

“It’s a big, high-pressure event and I felt like we were a little bit nervous overall, which is human nature,” said Timme. “And when the second half we calmed down, we remembered. We are Gonzaga.”

Timme, a rare high-end senior in the basketball landscape, reassures Gonzaga when the going gets tough. Bolton said this team also learned along the way to “just play blind”.

“Not really focusing on rankings or anything anymore, not being number 1, or not worrying about any more records,” Bolton said. “Just really getting together and having to win games, and I think that’s helped us a lot.”

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