It wasn’t too many years ago that Gonzaga was the pesky mid-major that embarked on its national reputation by winning games in the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs (32–2) didn’t make March Madness until 1995. They didn’t win their first game in the tournament until 1999. That year, the team from Spokane, Wash., made it all the way to the Elite Eight. And while they’ve made it back to the tournament every year since, seventeen trips and counting, that remains their only trip to the Elite Eight.
This March, the Bulldogs are among the favorites to advance to the Final Four in Indianapolis, Indiana. ESPN College Basketball GameDay host Rece Davis, whose job it is to watch and dissect college hoops, picked the Bulldogs to finally reach the Final Four.
They enter the tournament as a No. 2 seed, and climbed as high as the No. 2 team in the country by late February. But first, before getting to Lucas Oil Stadium, they’ll have to get by a new, pesky mid-major trying to earn a national reputation. That upstart is North Dakota State (23–9), who will be in the NCAA Tournament for the third time and is coming off an upset of Oklahoma in last season’s tournament.
“We knew it was going to be a very, very good team, and Gonzaga is that,” said Bison head coach Dave Richman after the matchup was announced Sunday on the CBS Selection Show. “People label them maybe as a mid-major program, no way. They go into Arizona and lose in overtime. They’re an outstanding program and their record over the last couple years speaks for itself.
The Bulldogs boast a deep bench that leads the nation in field goal shooting, hitting nearly 53 percent of their shots while scoring 79 points per game. Four guys average double figures, led by Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer and Kevin Pangos, the West Coast Conference player of the year. They’re also deep, with nine players averaging more than ten minutes per game.
With that said, don’t expect the Bison to be timid. They’re not. The battle-tested group relishes the underdog role. “We’ve kind of been in the underdog role this whole year, nobody expected us to do what we did this year,” said Lawrence Alexander, the Summit League player of the year, who has already caught the attention of the Bulldogs.
“I know they’re a really good team,” explained Mark Few, the Bulldogs coach. Few is in his 16th year at Gonzaga and is the winningest active coach by percentage in NCAA Division I basketball. “They have a heckuva player in Alexander. Their numbers, they shoot the ball well from the 3-line, looks like they want to keep the score down, possession by possession.” It will be a contrast of styles with the Bulldogs’ up-tempo pace versus the ball control Bison.
It’s a formula that nearly toppled Gonzaga in January when Pepperdine, a team Few compared to NDSU, nearly beat the Bulldogs, falling 78–76. According to Richman, the keys for the Bison are defending and taking care of the glass. “If we can do what we do, as far as hang around, defend, rebound, take care of the ball, we’ll give ourselves a chance down the stretch. That’s what we’ll work for.”
Being a No. 2 seed, the Bulldogs have the added advantage of playing in Seattle’s Key Arena, a four-hour drive from their campus. “Honestly, it was nice for us to be in Seattle or Portland, and that was all I was really paying attention to, it didn’t really matter who we played,” said Pangos. The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee sent the Bison to the Pacific Time zone for the second straight year. Ironically, last March, NDSU played in Gonzaga’s hometown of Spokane. Bison fans hoped, instead, they’d be sent down I-29 to Omaha, not quite a six-hour drive from Fargo.
This week, notwithstanding the larger national stage, it will be business as usual for the Bison. “Take it as any other game,” Alexander said. “We still prepare the same way we’ve been preparing. Like my coach used to tell me in high school, we all put our pants on the same way.”
Before the Bulldogs were a national powerhouse from the Pacific Northwest, they were a team building a program just like the Bison, one win at a time. For their part, the Bison are looking to make a Gonzaga-like run with a string of wins in March, including knocking off the giant in the process.
“We know what we’re up against, this is a very good team,” began Richman, before concluding, “But we’re excited. This is a group that hasn’t been intimidated by any team, any stage, all year, and I don’t expect anything different on Friday.” The game is nationally televised on TNT and will tipoff at approximately 8:50 p.m. CST.