Gonzaga Gets Its Due with No. 2 Seed
March 14, 2004
By NANCY ARMOUR
Gonzaga finally has an NCAA seed to fit its ranking and its record.
The 'Zags drew the No. 2 seed in the St. Louis regional Sunday, the highest ever for the tiny school in Spokane, Wash., that's made a habit out of knocking off bigger opponents.
Gonzaga (27-2) also got what amounts to a home game, playing another small-school-that-could, Valparaiso, in Thursday's first round in Seattle. That's less than a six-hour drive east on Interstate 90.
"Playing right there across the state gives them a great advantage," Valparaiso coach Homer Drew said. "We were hoping to play in the Midwest so our fans could be there. But we love the opportunity because they're No. 2 and at one time they could have been a No. 1 with the season they had."
Kentucky (26-4) was selected as the No. 1 seed overall, no doubt getting a boost when Duke and Saint Joseph's lost in their conference tournaments. But it's hard to argue with the choice. Kentucky won its 10th Southeastern Conference title in 13 years with an 89-73 rout of Florida and has a nine-game winning streak.
The Wildcats will open Friday in Columbus, Ohio, against the winner of the play-in game between Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champion Florida A&M (14-16) and Patriot League champion Lehigh (20-10).
"I think we've made a pretty good case for ourselves," Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said.
The 'Zags became everyone's favorite underdog in 1999, when they made a spectacular run to the regional finals. They quickly showed they more than one-upset wonders, though, advancing past the first round in four of the past five years and making it to the round of 16 in 2000 and 2001.
Last year, Gonzaga put a scare in top-seeded Arizona, taking the Wildcats to double overtime before falling 96-95 in the second round.
"I haven't seen a 1 or 2 seed out there that wouldn't face a severe challenge from them," Arizona coach Lute Olson said last year.
But the selection committee seemed immune to 'Zags fever. Despite impressive regular-season records and tough nonconference schedules, Gonzaga couldn't get higher than a sixth seed.
In 2002, the Bulldogs were 29-3 and ranked sixth in the country - yet wound up with the No. 6 seed.
Gonzaga didn't give the selection committee much choice this year, though. The Bulldogs are 27-2 with victories over Missouri, Georgia, George Washington, Maryland and Washington, and they have a 20-game win streak going.
Their only two losses were against Stanford, the top seed in the Phoenix regional, and top-ranked Saint Joseph's, which was undefeated until losing to Xavier in the Atlantic 10 tournament. And that loss against Saint Joe's came when Ronny Turiaf was still out with an ankle injury.
"This is, in my opinion, the best team they've ever had," Drew said.
Gonzaga isn't the only team in the St. Louis regional staying close to home. No. 4 seed Kansas (21-8) will play Horizon League champion Illinois-Chicago (24-7) on Friday in Kansas City.
"Obviously I'd like to say yes that it helps to play there," Keith Langford said. "But as soon as I say that, if we lose then everybody is going to be saying `See, that didn't help them at all to be in Kansas City.' And I'm sure Illinois-Chicago could give a (darn) about Kemper Arena."
Other games include: No. 3 Georgia Tech (23-9) against 14th-seeded Northern Iowa (21-9); No. 5 Providence (20-8) vs. No. 12 Pacific (24-7); No. 6 Boston College vs. No. 11 Utah (24-8); No. 7 Michigan State (18-11) vs. No. 10 Nevada (23-8); and No. 8 Washington (19-11) vs. No. 9 Alabama-Birmingham (20-9).
Nevada, the Western Athletic champion is in the field for the first time since 1985.
Under the new seeding system, the winner of the St. Louis regional will face
the winner of the Atlanta regional in the Final Four.
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