Gonzaga's Getting Some Respect

March 15, 2001

By JIM O'CONNELL
AP Basketball Writer

MEMPHIS, Tenn. - It makes sense that the team most people are picking in the first-round game between a No. 5 and a No. 12 seed is the one with experience and success in the NCAA tournament.

One team has been to the tournament three straight years with the last two resulting in berths in the regional final and the third round.

The other team is making its first appearance since 1995, and has lost its last nine postseason games, counting conference tournaments, the NCAA and the NIT.

That's why 12th-seeded Gonzaga, the March powerhouse from the West Coast Conference, is the chic pick over fifth-seeded Virginia, the fourth-place team from the Atlantic Coast Conference.

"People do expect more out of us because of what we've done the last couple of years," Gonzaga senior center Casey Calvary said.

He was referring to the run in 1999 that ended one game short of the Final Four with a loss to eventual champion Connecticut and to last season when the Bulldogs lost to Purdue in the regional semifinals.

"The first year, people thought we would go to tournament, get stomped and go back to Spokane," he said. "The last couple of years have given people confidence in us. But to pick us to win I don't know about that."

The Virginia-Gonzaga game leads off Friday's first round of the South Regional at The Pyramid. Fourth-seeded Oklahoma plays No. 13 Indiana State in the second game, while the night session has top-seeded and defending national champion Michigan State against No. 16 Alabama State, and No. 8 California against No. 9 Fresno State.

Gonzaga (24-6) comes in having won 18 of its last 19 games, including the WCC tournament, while the Cavaliers (20-7) have lost two straight - a 35-point loss to Maryland and to a quarterfinal loss in the ACC tournament to Georgia Tech.

"It strikes a fire inside of me," Virginia guard Roger Mason said of the talk of the Bulldogs being considered a favorite despite the gap in seeding. "Gonzaga's talented and has had some success so I can see people saying that. If we're underdogs we'll approach it that way."

Both teams like to play at a quick pace with Virginia's 85.0 points per game just beating Gonzaga's 82.9, and neither team has real size with Calvary and Travis Watson both starting at center at 6-foot-8.

The experience factor is heavy on Gonzaga's side, but the scoring stars of the last two tournament teams - Richie Frahm and Matt Santangelo - have graduated.

"There's been a lot of high expectation within our program the last two years," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "This year has been kind of a footloose and fancy free group. I don't think they necessarily have the burden and expectations on them. They feel they can play and win some games in this tournament and so do I. But if you don't come and play well, it's one and done."

Virginia coach Pete Gillen, who has been to the NCAA tournament seven times with Xavier and once with Providence, feels his team has played - and won - enough big games to be ready for this one.

"The experts can say what they will. You don't worry about what people say," he said. "If we worried about what people said we wouldn't have been able to show up against Duke, Carolina and Tennessee."

Oklahoma (26-6) and Indiana State (21-11) both come in off conference tournament championships, although the way they entered those were considerably different.

The Sooners went into the Big 12 tournament having won 10 of 12, and they even went 2-1 after point guard and leading scorer J.R. Raymond was dismissed from the team for violating a team rule.

"You can't replace a guy like that," said Hollis Price, who stepped into the starting point guard position. "You just have to hope to get better every game and we have on defense and everything's fallen into place."

It's also helped that Nolan Johnson has taken over the scoring role and he averaged 18.0 points and 6.7 rebounds in being named MVP of the Big 12 tournament.

Indiana State had lost six of eight entering the Missouri Valley Conference tournament.

"We hit a point there where we started wondering if we were ever going to win another close one," coach Royce Waltman said. "You can't control the tempo against a team like Oklahoma. We like to get out in the open court and that's difficult against a disciplined, well-organized team.

"You want to talk about tangible toughness well lose your leading scorer and win like have. That's impressive."

 

 

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