Gonzaga relishes rare under-the-radar role in this tournament

DENVER — It’s been decades since Gonzaga was anything but a basketball powerhouse.

And the Bulldogs certainly flexed their collective muscles Friday night in Ball Arena with a get-loose, we’re ready 82-70 win over Grand Canyon University in a West regional first-round game.

The Bulldogs rolled into this year’s tournament as a No. 3 seed in the West Region, the third time they’ve been a No. 3 since their annual tournament campout started in 1999. That 1999 team introduced a nation to Gonzaga basketball, making a Cinderella run to the Elite Eight as a No. 10 seed during its first tournament appearance. The Bulldogs have been to every tournament since, reaching 12 Sweet 16s and twice reaching the national championship game. It’s a testament to what the Bulldogs have done that this year’s No. 3 seed has had a less pressure theme around it.

Especially for a team that was a No. 1 seed in each of its previous three tournament trips, including a title game loss to Baylor in the 2021 tournament.

“I would just say from the pressure level aspect, I would say it takes something off of us not really being a No. 1 seed,” guard Rasir Bolton said this week. “And then anything else is really the same. It’s all the same game of basketball … anybody can lose any day. So I don’t think anything changes. I think we have the same mindset.”

Under coach Mark Few’s watch, Gonzaga has been a No. 1 seed more often — five times — than they have been anything else. But not holding top line status has not changed anything for the Zags.

“I think the seeding is more for everybody dinking around with the brackets and all that,” said Few, who has been the head coach at the school for every tournament except its first one. “The players and the staffs, it just becomes more of here’s our task, these guys do this and this and this really good. And if we don’t do something about it, then they can beat us.

“I would just say as long as I’ve been in this thing now, every year, everything seems to be shrinking more to the mean as opposed to — we’ve been in enough of those 1-16 games and you’re like, holy smokes. Last year I walked out for the tip and Georgia State, I think they were bigger than us at dang near every position. And I’m like, this is a 16 seed?”

Gonzaga “fell” to a No. 3 in this tournament courtesy of an early-season gauntlet that included losses to Texas (a No. 2 seed), Purdue (a No. 1 seed) and Baylor (a No. 3 seed). Toss in the Dec. 14 loss to Loyola Marymount, a defeat that ended its 75-game home winning streak, and Gonzaga is ever-so-slightly under the radar this time around.

The Bulldogs trace the guts of their now 10-game winning streak to that loss to LMU and a callous or two they built in those early losses to the other heavyweights.

“They were feeling the disappointment, I think, early and beating themselves up pretty good mentally, and so that was a big challenge for our staff,” Few said. “Then I always say you’ve got to hit the Zags’ standard, and they were not hitting the Zags’ standard in a lot of areas. So I always feel that’s my job to kind of be the heavy in that regard. Sometimes it’s not all fun and games being the papa bear of the group.”

Few said the players also did not listen to “Jimmy and Johnny behind the keyboard in their mom’s basement” along the way.

Friday evening, they looked comfortable in their current status as All-American Drew Timme, now the school’s all-time leading scorer, efficiently scored 21 points. Timme had been held to six points in the first half when Grand Canyon had built a seven-point lead with just under six minutes before halftime. But from that moment on, Gonzaga found its comfort level, including a 20-6 run to open the second half.

“It’s a big, high pressure event, and I felt like on the whole we were a little nervous, which is human nature,” Timme said. “And then the second half we calmed down, recollected ourselves. We’re Gonzaga.”

Timme, a rare high-end senior in the basketball landscape, gives Gonzaga a comfort level if things get difficult. Bolton said this team learned to “blindly just play” along the way as well.

“Not really focusing on rankings or anything anymore, not being No. 1, or not worrying about any more records,” Bolton said. “Just really come together and having to win games, and I think that helped us a lot.”