Gonzaga An Underdog No Longer
March 22, 2000
SPOKANE, Wash. - Little Gonzaga is an underdog no more.
Oddsmakers in Las Vegas installed the 10th-seeded Bulldogs as 1-point favorites over No. 6 Purdue for Thursday night's NCAA tournament game. That turn of events is perhaps even more shocking than Gonzaga's upset victory over second-seeded St. John's on Saturday.
"We're beating people left, right and center," Gonzaga center Axel Dench acknowledged Tuesday. But "we like to think of ourselves as underdogs. We've still got a chip on our shoulder."
But these Bulldogs have enjoyed success their entire college careers. They are the winningest team in the West Coast Conference since 1992, and have won two consecutive league titles.
A final eight team a year ago, Gonzaga is 5-1 in the NCAA tournament the past two seasons, with the only loss coming to national champion Connecticut last year.
"People who call Gonzaga a Cinderella team are ignorant of what's going on in the basketball world," Purdue coach Gene Keady said this week.
Indeed, these Bulldogs are a complete team, featuring a mixture of inside and outside shooters, a suffocating defense, solid conditioning and a calm demeanor in the face of adversity.
"This is just another business trip for us," captain Matt Santangelo said Tuesday as the team prepared to board its charter flight to Albuquerque. "If teams don't get prepared for us, it's to their disadvantage."
This season, six players led the team in scoring for at least one game. Seven players led in rebounding.
The Bulldogs are so deep in talent that they lost guard Mike Nilson, the WCC defensive player of the year, to injury in the first game of the league tournament and have won six games in a row anyway.
And despite their relatively low-profile conference, the Zags have played a big-time schedule in recent years. Last year, they beat the likes of Memphis, Washington, Minnesota, Stanford and Florida.
This season, they routed UCLA 59-43 in Pauley Pavilion.
But who are these guys who have lifted a tiny Catholic school of 4,800 students into the national spotlight?
They are definitely a Northwest team. Of the 12 players on the roster, 10 are from Washington or Oregon. Freshman guard Jimmy Tricco is from Phoenix. Dench, the "Thunder from Down Under," is from Melbourne, Australia.
The leader is clearly Santangelo, a senior from Portland. The point guard broke John Stockton's career and season school assist records this year, and is the third-leading scorer in school history.
Against St. John's, he played all 40 minutes and had 26 points, five assists, four rebounds and only two turnovers in the face of the Big East team's swarming defense.
"He's a warrior," first-year coach Mark Few said afterward.
Sharpshooter Richie Frahm, also a senior, is from Battleground, Wash. He led the WCC in scoring this season with 17 points per game. In the first round against Louisville, he scored 31 points, the top performance in the tournament so far this year.
Casey Calvary, a junior from Tacoma, is the big banger inside, leading the team in rebounds and blocks, while averaging 13 points.
Dench is the tallest player at 6-foot-11. He shot 54 percent from the field in averaging 9.5 points. He also led the team in 3-point shooting percentage by canning 24-of-53 for 45 percent.
Senior Ryan Floyd, from Harrington, is starting in place of Nilson.
Not content to just be in the tournament, the Bulldogs aren't planning to end their season in Albuquerque.
"Hope to see you when we come to Indianapolis," Dench told cheering students at a pep rally Tuesday.
Indianapolis is the site of the Final Four.
By NICHOLAS K. GERANIOS
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