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Gonzaga’s Road To The NCAA Tournament

Bryan Altman

Admit it — you doubted whether the Bulldogs were for real, didn’t you?

Don’t be ashamed, I did too. It’s hard not to doubt a non-Power 5 heavyweight poised to play four or five straight games against elite-level competition from the nation’s top conferences for the first time all season.

The Dukes, North Carolinas and Kansases of Division I basketball regularly run up against each other during the regular season and conference tournament play, so you know that they can hack it when the time comes to square off on the sport’s biggest stage.

Gonzaga, coming from the WCC (West Coast Conference), doesn’t have that luxury.

However, a closer look at the Zags’ season, reveals the evidence that this team is special was there all along.

>>MORE: NCAA Tournament Coverage

Preseason Expectation: The WCC is Gonzaga’s world, and every other team is just living in it. Gonzaga once again received the most first-place votes in the preseason coaches poll (seven, compared to three for St. Mary’s).

The Bulldogs also entered the regular season ranked No. 13 in the USA Today Coaches Poll, based on the strength of their 2015-16 campaign and the return of senior center Przemek Karnowski and sophomore guard Josh Perkins, who were stalwarts for the team last year.

Gonzaga was favored to win their 16th regular season WCC title in the last 17 years, with only St. Mary’s posing any sort of a threat to their title chances.

November 25: A difficult out-of-conference schedule is key for a non-Power 5 power, and getting an early crack at the Florida Gators, one of the nation’s top teams, is a big opportunity for the Bulldogs.

The Bulldogs take care of business against the Gators, riding a late first-half surge that cuts into Florida’s 11-point lead and turns it into a manageable five-point deficit at halftime.

The Bulldogs outscore the Gators 45-35 in the second half for a 77-72 win, their first signature win of the young season.

November 27: Gonzaga’s 5-0 record is impressive, but getting to 6-0 by beating a nationally relevant team is a crucial test for a team with lofty goals for this year.

It’s a test that the Bulldogs pass, but not easily.

The Zags — predictably — storm out of the gate against the No. 21-ranked Iowa State Cyclones. Running on all cylinders, they soon lead by 18 points in their biggest test of the season so far. But the Cyclones whittle that lead down, and a Monte Morris jumper eventually cuts it to just one, 70-69. The Zags’ perfect record is in serious jeopardy.

Impressively, the resilient Bulldogs fail to fold under the pressure, closing the game out against Iowa and notching a 73-71 win.

December 3: With a No. 8 ranking in tow, the Bulldogs’ next test — a matchup against perennial Pac-12 power Arizona — is once again their biggest to date.

The Wildcats enter the game, held at a neutral site as part of Hoophall LA, having already beaten No. 12 Michigan State to open their season. They were bested by Butler just over a week prior, but look to have better luck in this game.

Ultimately, the Bulldogs rule the day yet again and improve their record to 8-0, including an impressive 2-0 mark against top-25 teams.

In the win over Arizona, its first since 2011, Mark Few’s team draws a line in the sand between this year’s Gonzaga squad and previous ones.

January 14: Regardless of what conference you play in, have a big, fat ‘0’ in the loss column when the calendar hits January is impressive.

It’s especially impressive when you consider that Gonzaga has beaten three top-25 teams on neutral ground.

Gonzaga’s conference schedule is decidedly weaker than most. But St. Mary’s is never a cakewalk, and that’s especially true this year.

The Gaels come to Spokane ranked No. 21 in the nation, and it’s well deserved thanks to big wins over No. 10 VCU, Nevada, Dayton and a hard-fought loss against then-No. 2-ranked Arizona.

Still, the Bulldogs manage to blow out the Gaels and keep their winning streak in tact.

“There was a lot of hype going into this game,” freshman center Zach Collins told reporters after the team’s 79-56 win over St. Mary’s. “We were hoping to come in and make a statement to the rest of the conference and the rest of the country. We know how to win.”

That they do. The Bulldogs are 17-0 and counting.

February 11: It’s February, and the Bulldogs haven’t lost, or really played in a close game for quite a while. Since their Dec. 3 win over Arizona, no team has lost to the Bulldogs by less than double-digits.

Fittingly, the 25-0 Gonzaga Bulldogs are the No. 1-ranked team in the nation.

Once again they face a difficult opponent in St. Mary’s — now ranked No. 20 in the nation — and on the road. And once again it doesn’t matter. Gonzaga prevails, 74-64, to hold on to perfection.

Gonzaga never leads by less than five in the second half even though Gaels star Jock Landale puts together a stellar, 24-point game to keep things close.

February 25: The Bulldogs prepare to embark on a relatively easy stretch to end their season. Only four games — three of them at home — stand between them and a perfect season.

With the BYU Cougars visiting Spokane for the final game of the season things seem very much in the Bulldogs’ favor, but looks can be deceiving.

The Cougars shoot the lights out in the final game of their season, and the Bulldogs have no answer for a team they beat handily on the road just under a month ago. They lose to the Cougars, 79-71.

BYU’s Eric Mika almost single-handedly thwarted the Bulldogs’ perfect year with a 10-14 shooting performance, good for 29 points. He adds 11 rebounds, two blocks and a steal to that impressive total.

While the Zags have have an incredible year, losing for the first time in the 30th game of the season is a tough way to enter postseason play.

March 7: The Zags rebound beautifully from their only loss of the year and dispatch Pacific and Santa Clara to return to the WCC tournament finals where No. 19 St. Mary’s awaits for a third and final showdown.

Just like the time before, and the time before that, the Gaels were no match for the Bulldogs, who win 74-56. Gonzaga claims yet another WCC conference tournament title.

The Road Ahead: The Bulldogs hold off a vicious comeback attempt from tournament rookies, the Northwestern Wildcats, to advance to their third straight Sweet 16.

They’ll face the No. 4 West Virginia Mountaineers on Thursday night at 7:40 p.m. ET on TBS.

 

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