No Longer Cinderella

March 17, 2000

TUCSON, Ariz. - If St. John's thought it had its hands full against Northern Arizona, wait until it meets Gonzaga. The Bulldogs do everything Northern Arizona does, and much more.

The 'Zags, tournament-tested with a 4-1 NCAA record the past two seasons, present a big challenge to the second-seeded Red Storm Saturday in the second round of the West Regional.

These are no longer the upstart Bulldogs that became the darlings of last season's tournament with their unexpected run to the West finals, where they put a major scare into eventual national champion Connecticut.

Gonzaga (25-8) is as confident as it is experienced. With four seniors in the starting lineup, the Bulldogs are savvy, scrappy and sharp-shooting. Although seeded 10th, Gonzaga clearly outplayed No. 7 seed Louisville in Thursday's 77-66 first-round victory.

"They're not a Cinderella team this year," said Bootsy Thornton of St. John's. "The Cinderella year was last year. They're not a mystery. Everybody knows they're good."

In Saturday's first game, No. 3 seed Oklahoma (27-6) plays No. 6 seed Purdue (22-9), a matchup of two teams that like to play rough, especially inside, where the Sooners' Eduardo Najera will match up against the Boilermakers' Brian Cardinal, the self-proclaimed "most-hated man in the Big Ten."

"A mirror image," Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson said. "We're both maybe one or two games away from winning our league."

St. John's (25-7) struggled mightily before pulling out a 61-56 victory over No. 15 seed Northern Arizona, a team that like Gonzaga loves to shoot 3-pointers and caused problems for the Red Storm inside with 7-foot center Dan McClintock. Gonzaga's 6-11 Axel Dench is a bigger threat than McClintock because he is more mobile and can hit the 3-pointer, and NAU had nobody like the Bulldogs' 6-8 leaper Casey Calvary.

"I think it's a great matchup," Dench said. "They're a lot like Louisville. They're undersized, they're very athletic and they're quick, so we'll be throwing a whole lot of defenses at them."

A key will be whether Gonzaga's three-man backcourt of Matt Santangelo, Richie Frahm and Ryan Floyd can handle the quickness of the St. John's trio of Thornton, Erick Barkley and Reggie Jessie.

"We have very quick hands, probably as quick of hands as you'll find in college basketball," St. John's coach Mike Jarvis said, "and we rely heavily on them."

The Bulldogs had a season-high 24 turnovers against Louisville, and anything close to that could be suicide against the Red Storm.

"If we do that, we're going to lose, there's no question about that," Santangelo said Friday. "St. John's is going to make us pay if we turn the ball over that many times. But that was pretty uncharacteristic. We averaged about 14 per game over the year and we've faced pressing teams before, so hopefully last night was kind of first-game jitters and tomorrow we'll come out more focused and take care of the ball better."

Frahm, who scored 31 points against Louisville, could have problems shaking loose from the tight perimeter defense of St. John's. But all five Gonzaga starters are 3-point threats.

The Bulldogs certainly could use guard Mike Nilson, the defender of the year in the West Coast Conference, who ruptured an Achilles' tendon in the opening game of the WCC tournament.

"It's real tough going into a game that features so many athletic, talented guards not to have our best perimeter defender on the floor worries us," said Santangelo, who was a teammate of Barkley on the U.S. team in the World University Games last summer.

"But at the same time it's kind of given us an emotional boost," Santangelo said, "because of the motivation it's provided as far as everyone trying to elevate their game to try to make up for losing him."

By BOB BAUM
AP Sports Writer


 

 

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