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Sweet 16 regulars Gonzaga not overlooking Grand Canyon
Personnel shifts each year, but the perennial question for Gonzaga remains: Are the Bulldogs tested enough to make a long run in the NCAA Tournament?
That answer came on Selection Sunday, when 10 teams that the Zags played – either in exhibitions or regular-season games – made the field of 68.
Gonzaga (28-5), making its 25th consecutive NCAA appearance, received the No. 3 seed in the West and is scheduled to face 14th-seeded Grand Canyon (24-11) on Friday evening in Denver.
“There’s not too much that can get you ready for the stretch of games we had in the season,” Gonzaga guard Julian Strawther said. “I feel like it only helps us when we’re coming down to the tournament.”
Added forward Drew Timme: “I don’t know if I can think of a harder stretch than what we had.”
The Zags’ marquee victory this season came in mid-December, a 100-90 decision over Alabama in Birmingham. The Crimson Tide received the No. 1 overall seed into the NCAAs.
Gonzaga also has wins over tournament teams Saint Mary’s (twice), Michigan State, Kentucky, Xavier and Kent State. The Zags lost by one point to Baylor and also to Texas, Purdue and Tennessee (exhibition).
“It has to help. We’ve seen it all, basically,” Bulldogs coach Mark Few said. “From (Purdue’s 7-foot-4) Zach Edey to just the relentlessness and the pace of Alabama. The incredible physicality and intensity of Texas. So we’ve seen a lot.”
The Zags played in the Phil Knight Legacy tournament over Thanksgiving weekend in Portland, Ore., losing 84-66 to Purdue then bouncing back with an 88-84 victory against Xavier.
“Playing in the PK85 and things like that where you play Zach Edey one night and you wake up the next day and play Xavier,” said Strawther, whose 15.1 points per game are second on the team to Timme (20.9). “That just helps us with quick preps. We’ve been able to kind of have that tournament mindset to where a team we’ve seen before, never met before, we’ve got to prep for on one night.”
Gonzaga has some familiarity with Grand Canyon, as Zags assistant coach Roger Powell Jr. was on Lopes coach Bryce Drew’s staffs at Valparaiso and Vanderbilt. Drew’s brother, Scott, is the coach at Baylor, which defeated Gonzaga in the 2021 NCAA title game.
“It’s bittersweet, having to play them,” Bryce Drew said. “It’s basically the same (as facing Baylor) because Roger is like a brother. We’re super close, everything in life. I told him no matter what, we’re going to be friends.”
Both Gonzaga and Grand Canyon won their respective conference title games in Las Vegas. The Zags defeated Saint Mary’s 77-51 for the West Coast Conference crown and the fifth-seeded Lopes topped Southern Utah 84-66 for the Western Athletic Conference championship as sophomore guard Ray Harrison had 31 points, eight rebounds and eight assists.
The Lopes lost WAC preseason player of the year Jovan Blacksher Jr. to a season-ending knee injury in January, but they’ve won their past six games.
When the Lopes won their conference title Saturday, Zags assistant Powell tweeted a picture of them celebrating.
“And the next day,” Powell said, “I’m watching film to get ready to play them.”