Nobody Underestimates Zags Anymore

March 21, 2003

AP Sports Writer

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Nobody underestimates Gonzaga anymore, and the Zags are long past trembling in fear of any opponent.

That makes Saturday's second-round game between Arizona and Gonzaga in the West Regional far more intriguing than most matchups of a No. 1 seed and a No. 9.

"I'll tell you what," Arizona coach Lute Olson said of the Bulldogs, "I haven't seen a 1 or 2 seed out there that wouldn't face a severe challenge from them."

Duke, the No. 3 seed, faces 11th-seeded Central Michigan in Saturday's nightcap at the sold-out University of Utah's Jon M. Huntsman Center.

Gonzaga was everyone's underdog darlings in 1999, when the little school from Spokane, Wash., made a stunning run to the regional finals. The next two years, the Bulldogs made it to the round of 16.

This year, Gonzaga built enough of a reputation, and played enough tough nonconference opponents, to receive an at-large NCAA bid after being upset by San Diego in the West Coast Conference tournament. The Bulldogs (24-8) beat No. 8 seed Cincinnati 74-69 in Thursday's opening round.

"We're not scared of anybody in the country anymore," the Zags' Blake Stepp said. "We've played a lot of good teams, this preseason especially. We played Kentucky pretty tough in Maui. We felt we could have beaten them, then they went on a 23-win run. It's not a thing where we're in awe of anybody anymore."

They have a healthy respect, though, for Arizona (26-3), a team that spent 13 weeks as the top-ranked team in college basketball. Gonzaga last faced the Wildcats in 2001, losing a tough game in Tucson to an Arizona team that eventually lost to Duke for the national championship.

The Wildcats like Gonzaga's style.

"Hard-nosed, tough, very aggressive, fundamental," Arizona's Salim Stoudamire said. "They can get the job done, so we have to be on our `A' game."

Stepp vs. Stoudamire will be a matchup of two of the top shooting guards in the country. Both were high school stars in Oregon, but this will be the first time they've played against each other.

"I remember him getting player of the year one year, and I was pretty mad about that," Stoudamire said, "So obviously I'm going to get my revenge."

Stoudamire can be his own worst enemy. He was benched the entire second half of the team's next-to-last regular-season game against Oregon State because Olson didn't like his reaction to some criticism.

Stoudamire came to Olson's office and apologized the next day.

"A lot of times I display my emotions too much when I should be keeping them inside," Stoudamire said, "but, hey, I'm human. I can't be perfect."



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