Gonzaga, Xavier Prepare For Jesuit Battle

March 15, 2006

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Gonzaga has become a regular at the NCAA tournament.

Lately, the Bulldogs have been just as consistent at leaving early.

"We've had a lot of close games the last few years in the second round. It's tough on our fans and tough on ourselves when we have an early exit," said Gonzaga's Adam Morrison, the leading scorer in Division I.

Third-seeded Gonzaga (27-3) opens its eighth consecutive NCAA tournament against No. 14 seed Xavier (21-10), which won four straight games in the Atlantic 10 tournament to make it to the Oakland Regional.

Fans seemed to discover Gonzaga, the Jesuit school in eastern Washington, in 1999 when the Bulldogs came within a victory of making the Final Four.

But their last four appearances have ended in either the first or second rounds.

The University of Utah's Huntsman Center, where the Bulldogs and Musketeers play Thursday, was the site of one of the more difficult exits - a 96-95 loss to Arizona in two overtimes in the second round three years ago.

In 2004, Nevada upset the Zags in the second round. Last year, Gonzaga lost in the second round to Texas Tech. The streak of misfortune started against Wyoming in the opening round of the 2002 tournament.

The recent history has made Gonzaga one of the more popular picks to lose early.

"People can talk. People can speculate. These guys are hungry and they're ready to go," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "We've had a great season and I've made sure that they understand that."

Gonzaga has an automatic following in Salt Lake City already because of John Stockton, the former Bulldog who spent 19 seasons with the Utah Jazz. Spokane is also within a day's drive of the Salt Lake Valley, so plenty of fans should be able to come to town for the school's ninth appearance in the NCAA tournament.

Xavier is playing a long way from Cincinnati and will be without Brian Thornton, who led the team in scoring before breaking his ankle last month. Brandon Doellman also broke two bones in his hand in February, but was well enough to lead the Musketeers to their third A10 title in five years.

Thornton, who has to spend the final games of his senior year cheering on his teammates, averaged 15.3 points and nearly seven rebounds in 21 games.

"He still plays a huge role on this squad. Everyone looks to him and can see how the game could be easily taken away, so don't take it for granted," guard Stanley Burrell said. "He's such a leader and we're so glad that he came along with us."

Xavier also won four games in four days to qualify for the tournament two years ago.

"They are just not a 14 seed. They're somebody that you think you'd see at a seven, eight, nine - somewhere in there," Few said. "I don't have to use any coaching points. Our guys have seen it on tape. This is a darn good team."



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