Gonzaga saved its best game for the biggest stage… Now, bring on the Buckeyes!

Even though I called it a much closer game than it ended up between Gonzaga and West Virginia last nite, I kinda got the feeling that the Zags were a much better team than the Mountaineers when I was researching the opposition–I just didn’t have the guts to predict such a blowout.  I mean, how does a 13-loss team that goes 9-9 in conference play and loses its first conference tournament game even make it to the NCAAs–much less as a 10 seed–and get rewarded with de facto home court advantage?  The argument that the Mountaineers clearly didn’t belong was only emphasized by their terrible performance, and now they’re one-and-done.  Good riddance.

I gotta say, I loved how Reggie Miller spent most of the second half of the OSU-Loyola game praising Pangos, Sacre, and the Bulldogs in general.  With a big statement win like that in the opening round, Gonzaga has opened a few eyes on the national stage–and they really needed a strong performance knowing that Ohio State would likely be next in their bracket.  As someone who picked Gonzaga over OSU in mine, the West Virginia win was just what the doctor ordered.  I know it won’t be easy, but I stand by my conviction that the Zags will git ‘r done tomorrow.

As a whole, my bracket is still in pretty good shape.  Although my 12-for-16 Thursday showing puts me near the back of the pack in the office pool (when there aren’t any major upsets, people who just pick the favourites tend to flourish), I had seven of my eight eligible Sweet 16 teams advance to the second round.  The one exception was UNLV, a squad I had going all the way to the Elite Eight.  No, I did not take a Hot Tub Time Machine back to 1992.  I just figured that Baylor wasn’t a very strong three-seed, and Duke was beatable as a two–but as it turns out, UNLV wasn’t a strong six seed either.  The Pac-12 champs from Colorado have now won their first tournament game since 1995.  I’m sure there’ll be a bender in Boulder all weekend until they get bounced by Baylor in the second round.  That was the ugliest NCAA win I’ve seen since Gonzaga beat BYU in Spokane in conference play.  (Now, the Zags’ win over the Mormons in the WCC tournament, on the other hand, was pretty impressive…)

With a couple of upsets on the docket, I’m hoping to climb back into contention in my office pool today.  Here’s who I like in Friday’s first-round action:

12:15 pm: Cincinnati over Texas - Texas looks a lot like another West Virgina to me.  20-13 on the season, 9-9 in conference play.  The Bearcats, who went deep in the Big East tourney, should beat ‘em with ease.

12:40 pm: San Diego State over North Carolina State – Y’know, I’ve always had a soft spot for NC State.  Maybe it’s because they were the first true Cinderella team back in ’83, a label that’s since been applied to Gonzaga, among others.  But this year, the Wolfpack needed a strong showing in the ACC tournament just to sneak into the field of 64.  Their opponents, San Diego State, are the 23rd-ranked team in the nation.  Alas, when it comes to the Wolfpack, the slipper stopped fitting a long time ago.

1:40 pm: Alabama over Creighton - So far, I’m 0-2 in these 8-9 games, so I’m gonna play it safe and go with the big-conference school here–as opposed to taking Southern Miss over Kansas State, which didn’t quite pan out.

2:10 pm: Florida over Virgina - This looks like a pretty even matchup on paper, unlike that 7-10 game they played yesterday.  But Florida’s a school that’s gone deep in the tournament before, albeit not with this roster.  And it’s hard not to like a team that pushed Kentucky to the brink in the SEC semi-finals.  Virgina, on the other hand, lost to NC State in their conference tournament…

2:45 pm: Florida State over St. Bonaventure - FSU beat Duke and North Carolina in back-to-back games to win the ACC.  The A-10 tourney champs shouldn’t pose much of a problem for the team I have meeting Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 in my bracket.

3:10 pm: Belmont over Georgetown - Now here’s where I see an upset in a 3-14 game.  Belmont has been to four tournaments in the last six years, almost beating Duke as a 15 seed in ’08.  For that matter, they nearly knocked off the (then) sixth-ranked Blue Devils back in November–at Cameron Indoor Stadium, no less!  Did I mention there are only three teams in the country that score more than the Bruins’ 81.5 points per game?  On the other hand, the Hoyas’ recent history shows they’re ripe for an upset, bowing out in the first round of the past two tourneys–and by a wide margin, at that.  The University of Ohio almost hit 100 when they beat Georgetown as a 14-seed in 2010.  Belmont might wanna find that game film–if they haven’t already seen it.

4:10 pm: North Carolina over Vermont - Although a 16 nearly beat a 1 last nite, I have North Carolina over Syracuse in my Final Four.  Their first-round opponent, Vermont, had to win a play-in game to get here.  This one won’t be so close…

4:40 pm: Missouri over Norfolk State - Mizzou is another team I have going deep in the tourney.  Norfolk State only has one impressive game on its resume, a two-point home loss to Marquette.  (The Eagles trounced ‘em on the road earlier in the season.)  Do I have any reason to believe they can hang with the third-ranked team in the country?  Nope, none whatsover.

6:50 pm: Memphis over Saint Louis – This is one 8-9 matchup I can’t afford to lose, since I see Memphis as a dark horse in this tournament.  Sure, they lost to some ranked teams early in the season, but in the past month they’ve won every game but one in Conference USA play by at least 18 points.  Saint Louis didn’t have a single ranked team on its schedule–and they lost to LMU, Rhode Island and UMass.  I expect Memphis to win this by 20+, and to give MSU a run for their money in the next round, too.

7:15 pm: Duke over Lehigh – I do think Duke will lose sooner than most people have in their brackets, but it won’t be against Lehigh, that’s for sure.

7:20 pm: Michigan over Ohio - The Bobcats may have put the MAC on the map by beating Georgetown two years ago, but this year’s edition scores only 70.7 points per game and played nobody worth mentioning this season, aside from a November loss to Louisville.  The Big 10 regular season co-champs won’t be threatened here.

7:27 pm: St. Mary’s over Purdue – Of the six Big 10 teams in the tournament, the Boilermakers are the only one seeded higher than fourth, yet most people are moving them into the second round over the WCC champs.  Not so fast, says someone who’s seen St. Mary’s play no less than six times this year.  Sure, their non-conference schedule left a little to be desired–losses to Baylor and Murray State notwithstanding–but this is a team that, like Gonzaga, can beat you many different ways: Brad Waldow in the post, Rob Jones working the inside-outside game, Clint Steindl beyond the arc and WCC POY Matthew “Mouthguard” Dellavedova with a variety of circus shots and drive-and-dishes.  As a matter of fact, the Gaels beat Gonzaga twice, stealing both the regular-season and WCC tournament crown in the process, and we all saw what the Zags did to their 10-seed.  Purdue hasn’t seen this kind of non-conference foe since they lost to Butler in December–and for that matter, they went 1-7 against the ranked teams in the Big 10.  Says here that St. Mary’s pulls a Penn State and whups ‘em by 20.

9:20 pm: Michigan State over LIU Brooklyn – LIU Brooklyn knocking off the Big Ten champs?  Puuuuhleeeze!

9:45 pm: Xavier over Notre Dame - Since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams, the seven has beaten the 10-seed 63 per cent of the time.  I have all the other sevens advancing in my bracket, so the law of averages says Xavier wins this game.  Statistics aside, Xavier is an experienced veteran team that can do some damage–and not just with their fists.  Just ask Big East runners-up Cincinnati, who beat the Irish by 15 in Big East play after all those suspensions were served.  I wouldn’t bet my shirt on this game, but I’ll still take the upset.

9:50 pm: Temple over South Florida – USF needed a play-in game just to get here, and we saw what happened to the other play-in teams yesterday.  They lost.  Big time.  Smilin’ Hank Burris’ alma matter wins this one.

9:57 pm: Kansas over Detroit - Michigan and Michigan State get the top choice of in-state talent, while the table scraps go to the Titans.  In fact, Detroit only has 10 players on its basketball team.  That might not be so bad in the Horizon League, but against one of the nation’s top schools, their chances of survival are about as slim as Kid Rock’s would be if he grew up on 8 Mile.  (Everybody in the D knows he’s from the suburbs, yo!)

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Zags charge into the WCC tourney final tonite… Gaels are going down!

Man, I gotta say, that semi-final win by Gonzaga over BYU on Saturday nite was the best 40 minutes of basketball I’ve seen this team play all season.  They jumped out to an early lead and never let up, cruising to a 77-58 victory.  The Zags led by double digits for all but the first five minutes of the game, taking a 17-5 lead with 14:47 left in the first half and never looking back.  Kevin “Steve Nash Jr” Pangos stepped it up in the biggest game of his young college career, pouring in 30 points in 33 minutes on 10-for-17 shooting, including 5-of-9 beyond the arc.  (I still can’t buy his fuckin’ jersey, though!)  Let’s just say that if the Zags keep playing like they did on Saturday, they should go deep in the NCAA tournament.

But first, there’s still some business to take care of.  The win over BYU has put Gonzaga back into the AP Top 25, all but assuring them a spot in this year’s dance.  But they can clinch that position, and likely improve their seeding, by winning the conference tournament tonite.  As I expected, they’ll be facing the arch-rival Saint Mary’s Gaels, who ended Gonzaga’s streak of 11 straight regular-season WCC titles this season.  The Zags and Gaels have met in the last three WCC tournament finals–five of the last eight, for that matter–and none of them have been close.  Gonzaga beat St. Mary’s by 12 points last year, 13  in ’04 and ’05, and a whopping 25 points in ’09, while St. Mary’s won the 2010 conference title game by 19 points.  Likewise, neither of this year’s two regular-season meetings were highly contested, with the Gaels winning by 21 in Moraga and the Zags winning by 14 in Spokane.  Of course, this game will be played on a neutral site at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas…

So who wins?  I say it’s gotta be Gonzaga.  The Zags simply annihilated the third-best team in the conference, while St. Mary’s struggled with fifth-seeded San Francisco, eking out a five-point win.  With a solid performance tonite, Kevin Pangos should become the second Canadian–and second freshman–to win WCC tournament MVP, after a kid from Santa Clara named Nash did it in his freshman year back in 1993.  Nash had 23 points in that year’s final and hit 10 of his 13 three-pointers in the tournament.  If Pangos goes 5-for-5 from beyond the arc tonite, he’ll be 10-for-14.  Hey, no pressure, son!  Still, even a 15-point performance would put him well above Nash’s ’93 WCC tourney average of 17 ppg.  Did I mention that Steve only scored eight points a game as a freshman?  Pangos has him lapped at 14–though it must be said that Captain Canada posted some impressive numbers in his final three seasons…

Of course, the tournament MVP usually goes to the best player from the winning team.  But like I said, I think the Zags will take this one–by a lucky 13 in honour of Canada’s finest.  Gonzaga 76, Saint Mary’s 63.

GO GONZAGA! G-O-N-Z-A-G-A!

UPDATE 8:33 PM: Of course, this post couldn’t be complete without another amazing illustration from the GU Board:

(I think I’ll stick with my 13-point prediction, though.)

UPDATE 11:30 PM: This just in: Kevin Pangos is not Steve Nash.  A great game by both teams that went into overtime, but the freshman point guard was ice cold.  Upperclassmen big men Elias Harris and Rob Sacre carried the Zags tonite, with Sam Dower chipping in a few big buckets.  Sucks to lose in OT, but at least this time we know both teams will be in the NCAA tournament.  I think both schools will make some noise at the Big Dance, too.  Maybe a Sweet Sixteen rematch?  Stranger things have happened… ;)

For Gonzaga, the road to the WCC championship has a great big bump in it…

In NCAA basketball, it generally doesn’t matter if you win your conference cuz it’s all about the Big Dance.  Y’know, March Madness, the NCAA Tournament–arguably the most exciting event in organized team sports.  But when you’ve won 11 conference titles in a row, and are trying to tie a record set by John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins (winners of 13 straight in the Pac 8), winning the conference does matter.  They’ll likely make the Tourney regardless, but the Gonzaga Bulldogs and their fans (myself included) certainly want to keep this streak alive.

If they get there, it’ll be due in large part to the performance they put in on Thursday, beating the 16th ranked Saint Mary’s Gaels behind a big performance by Canadian point guard Kevin Pangos, who poured in 27 points, hitting five of six three-pointers in the process.  (I still can’t buy his jersey online, though!)  Vancouverite centre Rob Sacre added 12 points and nine boards in a game that should’ve been shown on The Score instead of an ugly Pac-12 blowout that, last time I checked, didn’t showcase the future of Canadian basketball.  But I digress.  Having lost to Saint Mary’s and WCC newcomers BYU on the road, the Zags still need to win one more conference game than the first-place Gaels for a share of the conference title.

This won’t be easy, as Gonzaga definitely has the tougher schedule, with games remaining against the next best WCC teams in Loyola Marymount (tonite at 8 Eastern) and BYU, while St. Mary’s plays LMU at home, but has already dispatched the Cougars twice.  Both teams also travel to San Francisco (not much of a trip for the Moraga, CA-based Gaels), who’ve been known to pull off an upset or two on their home court.  The Gaels also have a big game remaining in Murray, Kentucky against the no-longer-undefeated Murray State Racers that has no bearing on their conference, but should certainly affect their NCAA tournament seeding.  Unlike last year, when a late-season loss to San Diego and a conference tournament setback against the Zags sent St. Mary’s to the NIT, it’s safe to assume that both these schools will be going to the Big Dance–barring an epic collapse by either over the next five games.  And regardless of what happens in the Bluegrass State, the Gaels just have to win out in the WCC to end Gonzaga’s streak.  Furthermore, they (just barely) got San Diego out of the way last weekend, which can only serve as a good omen.

Assuming that each team takes care of the 0-11 (8-16 overall) Santa Clara Broncos and wins heavily-favoured road games in San Diego (Zags) and Portland (Gaels) respectively, it’s going to come down to two common opponents: Home to LMU and @ San Fran.  Of course, Gonzaga has the added onus of avenging an 83-73 loss to BYU as well, but if the Zags match the intensity they played with on Thursday, I think the Cougars will find they’re not the only team that’s virtually unbeatable on their home court.

Likewise, the Zags should still be hyped up from the win two nights ago as they host the 9-3 (16-9) LMU Lions tonite.  It’s definitely worth noting that LMU is 6-0 on the road in conference play, including an upset win @ BYU, and that they took Gonzaga down to the wire in L.A. about a month ago.  If Coach Few’s smart (and he clearly is), he’s not going to let off the gas pedal, knowing this game is just as big as the last one.  On the other hand, the Gaels host LMU three days before they take that much talked-about trip to Kentucky.  It might be easier for them to overlook the third-placed team in the conference…

On the other hand, Saint Mary’s travels across the Golden Gate Bridge on February 25th, when the conference will be all but decided–unless they lose to the Lions.  Looks like the Zags have their work cut out for them these next two weekends, and they’re gonna need a little help as well.  In a conference comprised of faith-based institutions, would it be wrong to ask for a little divine intervention–say tonite in Moraga, where the SCU Broncos are still in search of their first conference win?  Santa Clara, what was she the patron saint of, again? ;)

No matter what happens, I’ll still be rocking my outdated number 23 jersey from here till March Madness…

GO GONZAGA! G-O-N-Z-A-G-A!

UPDATE 10:55 PM: Gonzaga gets the job done, jumping out all over LMU early and never letting up.  Final score: 78-59 Zags.  Saint Mary’s and Santa Clara tip off at 11, but I’m not getting my hopes up…

UPDATE 1:05 AM: And Saint Mary’s wins by 15.  We’re not gonna catch ‘em this week!

UPDATE 2/16: Dunno how I missed this last nite, but LMU came through, beating Saint Mary’s 75-60 in their own gym.  Now the ball’s in Gonzaga’s court.  If they win out, they keep the streak alive!  Go Zags!

UPDATE 2/18: Heartbreaking one-point loss for Gonzaga on the road @ USF.  Forget about the WCC title, they need to beat BYU on Thursday to avoid falling to third place! :( :( :(

He’s his team’s leading scorer, one of the top freshman on the west coast, and quite possibly the best Canadian PG since Steve Nash–but you can’t buy Kevin Pangos’ jersey online!

It’s a big game for the Bulldogs tonite, as Gonzaga travels to Moraga, CA to take on heated conference rivals Saint Mary’s in WCC action.  The Gaels are off to another great start, posting a 15-2 mark with a 4-0 record in conference play.  And while newcomers BYU should have a say in the conference standings, it’ll probably come down to Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s again this year, which makes this evening’s matchup one to watch–even with an 11 o’clock tip on the east coast, you know I’ll be tuning in!

For the occasion, I’m suiting up in my Gonzaga #23 jersey that I bought online five or six years ago.  Suffice to say that they’ve changed styles a couple times since then, and nobody wears 23 on this year’s team–mind you, I can’t even remember who wore it back then.  I figure it might be time to change my look; some of the stitching is coming apart, and everything…  So when I buy a new jersey, I know whose number I’ll be wearing for at least the next four years…

“Starting at point guard, six-foot-one, from Newmarket, Ontario…  Kevin Paaaaangoooos!”

The Canuck frosh has taken the NCAA by storm, leading his team with 14.2 points and 3.5 assists per game this season.  That said, I was somewhat shocked not to see his number 4 amongst the options at the Gonzaga Bulldogs Shop.  There are a handful of the new-style jerseys with “Go Zags” embedded on the back available in home white, road navy and even black, but taking a look at the numbers, I see:

  • 00, Robert Sacre: A solid senior centre from Van City.  The time to buy his jersey was two years ago, though–unless I wait till next year, when they go on sale.
  • 20, Elias Harris: The team’s second-leading scorer, the junior, German-born swingman is also Gonzaga’s best pro prospect.  I’d probably buy his jersey if it had his name on the back (the Zags don’t do it as per school tradition, however).
  • 35, Sam Dower: The lefty sophomore centre from Minnesota earns a lotta minutes off the bench already, and will fill Sacre’s shoes in the starting lineup next season.  I like Sam, just not that much.
  • 11, David Stockton: Yuuup, he’s the son of the school’s most famous alum.  The sophomore backup PG has great court vision, racking up assists and steals in limited minutes–and shoots an outstanding 48.4 per cent from three.  Too bad he’s only 5’11″, 152.  Do they even sell this one any bigger than a medium?
  • 2, Marquise Carter: Though he came up big in the conference tournament last year, the senior 2-guard has struggled this season, and lost his starting job to freshman Gary Bell, Jr.  Incidentally, you can’t buy Bell’s number 5, either…
  • 41, former Zag Steven Gray: Last year’s senior leader went undrafted, and apparently he’s now playing in Latvia.  That said, his jersey still sells for the same price as the others.  Hmm.
  • 1, NOOOBOOODY!: Ronny Turiaf famously wore this number in his college days–but then again, he graduated in ’05, before they switched to their current look.  You can’t rock a Turiaf jersey if it’s not a throwback, son!

So there you have it, seven numbers to choose from, but their starting backcourt is left out in the cold–as is starting 3-man Mike Hart, but let’s face it, only his mom would wear his number 30.  (Well okay, maybe his dad, too.)  I suppose I’ll hafta wait till next season to update my wardrobe–though I’m somewhat surprised that they didn’t start selling Pangos jerseys the day after he dropped 33 on WSU.  You’d think they’d have ‘em in Spokane somewhere, at least…

Can anybody hook a brother up?