Certainly Cinderella no more, the Gonzaga Bulldogs are coming to Salt Lake City as the No. 1 team in America.
Having been ranked No. 1 in the nation since early March, the once-underdog Bulldogs will bulldoze their way into Utah and EnergySolutions Arena this week as the No. 1 seed in the West region. Gonzaga (31-2) is paced by one of the premier players in the nation in 7-foot junior Kelly Olynyk, who averages nearly 18 points per game. But the Bulldogs are a well-rounded pack as senior Elias Harris and sophomores Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. have led the program to its first ever No. 1 seed.
“When this team plays at its highest level, we can definitely beat anybody in the country,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said on ESPN on Sunday evening.
The Bulldogs will face No. 16 Southern (23-9) and Derick Beltran and Malcolm Miller in the headlining game in the one of four March Madness matchups Thursday at ESA. And while the No. 1 Zags no doubt will be the story of the second-round games in Salt Lake City, the Mountain West Conference champion New Mexico Lobos, the No. 3 seed in the West, along with Lobo Nation, will invade the Beehive State like they did for so many years when playing Utah and BYU. New Mexico (29-5) will face No. 14 Harvard (19-9), winners of the Ivy League crown.
The Lobos had a No. 2 RPI ranking this season, were No. 2 in strength of schedule and have a slew of talented players in Kendall Williams, Tony Snell and Alex Kirk, who equally lift the weight for a program on the continued rise under coach Steve Alford.
Harvard, winners of 10 of its last 13 games, has a talented shooting guard in sophomore Wesley Saunders, who leads the team averaging 16.5 points per game and shoots 52 percent from 3-point territory.
Joining Gonzaga and New Mexico as familiar teams returning to the state of Utah is Arizona, one of five Pac-12 Conference teams to be selected for the tournament. Sean Miller’s group is led by Mark Lyons and Solomon Hill, who combine to score 28 points per game.
But the Wildcats (25-7) have a talented bunch of Bruins waiting in the wings.
Belmont, winners of the Ohio Valley Conference, has won 17 of its last 19 games and has four players averaging double digits. Senior guard Ian Clark averages 18 points per game, and his backcourt running mate Kerron Johnson is considered one of the better point guards in the nation.
Lastly, in what could be one of the best second-round matchups of the tournament, No. 8 Pittsburgh (24-8) will take on No. 9 Wichita State (26-8). The Panthers, who are led by Tray Woodall, are ranked No. 6 in the nation in scoring defense and will have to slow down Cleanthony Early, Carl Hall and Malcolm Armstead.
Tickets for the second- and third-round games in Salt Lake City were still available this weekend. But with Gonzaga, New Mexico and Arizona all expected to bring large fan contingents, that could change quickly.
At Energy Solutions Arena
Thursday’s second-round games
(8) Pittsburgh vs. (9) Wichita State, 11:40 a.m.
(1) Gonzaga vs. (16) Southern, 2:10 p.m.
(6) Arizona vs. (11) Belmont, 5:20 p.m.
(3) New Mexico vs. (14) Harvard, 7:50 p.m.
Saturday’s third-round games
Gonzaga-Southern winner vs. Pittsburgh-Wichita State winner, TBD
New Mexico-Harvard winner vs. Arizona-Belmont winner, TBD