Call it the Calgary curse: From 1989 to 2004, the Calgary Flames couldn’t win a playoff series. Of course, they went all the way to the finals in ’04, and won the Cup in ’89–but they hadn’t won a single seven-game series in the interim–and they haven’t won another playoff series since. (They haven’t made the playoffs in the past three seasons, but don’t even get me started…) Likewise, the Gonzaga men’s basketball team, which captivated Calgarians (via our US network affiliates in Spokane) during their magical run to the Elite Eight in ’99, has faced a similar roadblock. After back-to-back Sweet 16s in the two years following their grand entrance on the national stage, they’ve only made it past the first weekend of the tournament twice, in ’06 and ’09. In fact, March Madness 2013 marks the fourth straight year that Gonzaga has lost in the second round. Ouch!
Of course, things were supposed to be different this year. In tourneys past, the Zags found themselves seeded somewhere between 7th and 10th, pitting them against a tough opponent (Syracuse, BYU, Ohio State) in the round of 32. But after a couple big blowout losses, they turned a corner in 2012, taking the second-seeded Buckeyes down to the wire. I actually had GU in my Sweet 16 last year, though it was not to be. But that’s nothing compared to this season, when I actually picked the Zags to go all the way–and I wasn’t the only one, either.
Despite the disappointing finish, Gonzaga still had a magical run this year, capturing the number-one ranking before storming through the WCC tournament in Las ZAGas. With the addition of Kelly Olynyk to a solid frontcourt, it was starting to seem like they’d found the missing piece to finally lead them to their first Final Four. But despite his 26 points and nine rebounds, KO only shot 8-22 (.364) from the field, a far cry from his season’s average of 63 per cent. And when Wichita State started hitting everything from behind the arc late in the second half, the Zags abandoned the inside game altogether–but they just couldn’t match the Shockers’ shocking 50 per cent pace from downtown.
Full credit to Wichita State. They earned that win. I could make excuses about Gonzaga missing FGs early and FTs late, or about Gary Bell, the Bulldogs’ best perimeter defender, missing most of the second half with a sprained ankle–but the fact of the matter is that WSU shot their way back into that game, with everyone from power forward Cleanthony Henry to reserve guard Fred Van Fleet making more than they missed from behind the arc. In fact, if you subtract Malcolm Armstead, their top backcourt scorer’s 1-6 performance, the rest of the team shot 60 per cent from 3. Now that’s how you shoot yourself into the Sweet 16!
Unfortunately for Gonzaga, if they’re to break on through next season, it might hafta be as a nine-seed. The Zags will most likely be looking at an entirely new frontcourt next year, with seniors Mike Hart and Elias Harris graduating and redshirt junior Kelly Olynyk–who’s already graduated–projected to be a first-round NBA pick. (Let’s just say I’ll be monitoring his Twitter feed.) They might even be forced to employ a three-guard lineup of Stockton, Pangos and Bell for significant stretches. But hey, a starting five of Pangos, Bell, Barham, Downer and Karnowski could still win the WCC next season, what with St. Mary’s and BYU also losing some key players. Whether or not they advance past the first weekend, I still expect the Zags’ 15-year tournament streak to be extended in 2014.
Suffice to say my bracket’s been busted and I’m staring at another 25th-place finish in my office pool, but I’m going to continue with my tournament picks, just for the metal health of it.
12:15 pm: Iowa State over Ohio State – I actually had Notre Dame winning this second-round matchup, but the Cyclones dispatched them so thoroughly that I might as well throw my weight behind ISU. Ohio State barely survived a second-round scare against an Olynyk-less Gonzaga team last year, and while they haven’t lost to a unranked team all season–neither had Gonzaga until the Thrifty Thirty-Two. Not to mention that OSU’s the only top-five seed remaining in the Wild Wild West region, and I’d kinda like to see La Salle in the Final Four.
2:45 pm: Indiana over Temple – While I do think a second number-one will fall today, I don’t expect it to be the Hoosiers, who are one of the top five teams in the country. Temple barely squeaked past the Wolfpack in the second round, very nearly coughing up a sizable lead. They can’t afford such a meltdown against Zeller, Oladipo and company–or this one won’t even be close.
5:15 pm: North Carolina over Kansas – I may have picked KU (over Villanova) in my bracket, but I really think the Jayhawks are vulnerable here. After barely squeaking past a 16-seed, they now face a formidable foe in the third round–the venerable North Carolina Tarheels. UNC is 14th in the country in points and rebounds, and third (out of 300+ programs) in assists. Considering Kansas’s propensity to shit the bed in the tournament, I think the Heels can pull off the upset. (Hey, I had the Hawks losing to Michigan in the Sweet 16, anyways.)
6:10 pm: Florida over Minnesota – According to famed stats guru Nate Silver, Florida has the best statistical probability of winning the South region. Then again, he also gave Gonzaga a narrow edge over OSU in the West. But nevertheless, the SEC regular-season champs are a pretty strong team. Any doubts that might have crept in after losing the conference tourney to Ole Miss were quickly dispatched with a dominant performance in the first round. Meanwhile, the Gophers certainly surprised some with a 20-point win over sixth-seeded UCLA, and they have a knack for knocking off top teams (including Memphis, Michigan State, Illinois, Wisconsin and top-ranked-at-the-time Indiana), but I don’t think they have the offensive firepower (just one player averages over 11 ppg) to upset Florida.
7:10 pm: Florida Gulf Coast over San Diego State – A 15-seed in the Sweet 16!? Hey, it could happen. Knocking off Georgetown gives FGCU a relatively easy second-round matchup against an SDSU squad that finished fourth in the Mountain West, a conference with no remaining teams in the tourney. As a matter of fact, the second-round win wasn’t Gulf Coast’s only big upset this season. They also held Miami to 51 points in a 12-point victory way back in November. Hey, I’d take Miami or Georgetown over San Diego State any day–and by extension, I like the A-Sun champs in this one.
7:40 pm: Ole Miss over La Salle – Now I said I’d like to see La Salle in the Final Four, but that doesn’t mean I’m picking them to get there. However, the winner of this 12 vs 13 matchup will at least advance to the Sweet 16, where the Wichita State Zag-Shockers await. The A-10 also-rans (fifth in their conference) had one heckuva first half against Kansas State, scoring 44 points, but instead of keeping up their 88-point pace, they managed just 19 in the second half to narrowly pull off the upset. On the other hand, the Rebels came on strong in the second, outscoring Wisconsin by 14 to win by 11. The SEC tournament champs are in the top 20 nationwide in both points and rebounds, and were pretty much the only second-round upset pick that actually came through to me. In theory, they’re the favourites here, but I still like ‘em in the third. Ole Miss-Wichita State oughtta be a real barn-burner!
8:40 pm: Miami over Illinois – That Illinois-Colorado second-round matchup was a real ugly game. The Illni’s streaky three-point shooters went ice-cold in the second half, and were it not for an equally inept Colorado performance (both teams shot less than 35 per cent from the floor), the seven-seed would’ve been run out of the building. Enter the Hurricanes, who laid a 29-point lickin’ on Pacific in Round Two. I’ve got the Canes in my championship game, so bye-bye Illini!
9:40 pm: Duke over Creighton – This game could certainly be closer than you think. (Then again, I thought Cincinnati would be here.) The Missouri Valley champs, soon to join the Big East, earned a hard-fought win over the Bearcats on Friday, but this is still a mid-major program that lost to Boise State, Wichita State and Saint Mary’s–not to mention Illinois State, Indiana State and Northern Iowa. And while Duke is almost as bad as Kansas when it comes to losing early-round games in which they’re heavily favoured, I still think they’ll survive this one–only to lose to MSU in the Sweet 16.