For some reason, the Gonzaga Bulldogs were allowed back in the building Friday. They practiced and participated in interviews at EnergySolutions Arena like any other team that’s still competing in the NCAA Tournament, never mind that the Bulldogs were upset by Southern.
Wait. They won? You’d never know that by the universal reaction to the Bulldogs’ 64-58 victory. Gonzaga’s showing evoked derision about its No. 1 seed, questions about the West Coast Conference’s level of competition and forecasts of the team’s soon being ousted from the tournament.
Gonzaga’s survival became as big of a story as No. 3 seed New Mexico’s elimination in Salt Lake City, but there’s a critical distinction here: The Lobos went home; Gonzaga is playing Wichita State in Saturday’s third round. The Sports Illustrated tournament preview issue with the cover photo of center Kelly Olynyk surrounded by Zag fans has not become a collector’s item, for the wrong reasons. Gonzaga remains in play, and that’s all the Bulldogs seem to care about.
"I don’t think we need to worry about aesthetics," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "We’re not getting style points, and we’re not getting graded. You either win or your season is over."
True enough. By next weekend, the close call with Southern may be long forgotten, if the Bulldogs are on their way to the school’s first Final Four.
Just the same, history says a less-than-convincing performance by a No. 1 seed in its first tournament game should not be easily dismissed. In 1996, the last time a No. 16 seed came this close to staging an upset, Purdue lost in the next round. None of the top-seeded teams involved in other celebrated near-misses — Georgetown and Oklahoma in 1989 and Michigan State in 1990 — made the Final Four.
So until proven otherwise, the Bulldogs can be described only as vulnerable. If they thought they already were being scrutinized with a No. 1 ranking in the polls and a No. 1 seed, imagine the skepticism now.
That’s OK with them.
"We don’t really care that much," reserve guard David Stockton said about the worldly view of his team. "We feel like we’ve always got something to prove. That’s a good thing for us."
But if Southern could play them evenly for 36-plus minutes, how long can the Bulldogs last?
"They had their scare," Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. "They’ll be fine. … I’m anticipating Gonzaga being at their best."
If the Bulldogs do advance to Los Angeles next weekend, their avenue to the Final Four becomes considerably wider.
The Nos. 3 (New Mexico), 4 (Kansas State) and 5 (Wisconsin) seeds in the West Region already have been eliminated, leaving No. 2 Ohio State as presumably the Bulldogs’ biggest impediment.
And the fact remains that the Bulldogs have lost only twice, to hot-shooting Illinois in December and at Butler in January, when Stockton’s in-bounds pass was intercepted and turned into a buzzer-beating shot.
Gonzaga generally breezed through WCC play, but being tested at San Diego and BYU may have sufficiently toughened the Bulldogs.
"At the end of games, we feel like we can really dial it in and do what we need to do," Stockton said.
"This club I have this year has just been unbelievable in the last four minutes of pretty much every game," Few said. "So we have a confidence about us."
The rest of the world lost all faith in them Thursday, but some of that belief could be restored in 40 minutes Saturday. There’s one weird thing about this tournament: Reality is more important than perception.
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