After Iowa beat Davidson by 31 points last Friday, plenty of people thought the Hawkeyes could give No. 2 Gonzaga a run for its money, especially given the Zags’ recent struggles in the Round of 32.
Nope. Gonzaga routed Iowa, 87-68, on Sunday. The Zags shot 32-of-52 (61.5 percent) from the floor and 10-of-16 (62.5 percent) from three-point range to reach their first Sweet 16 since 2009.
“It felt great,” Gonzaga guard Gary Bell Jr. said on CBS Sports Radio’s After Hours with Amy Lawrence. “We put in all this work – three years in a row, winning a game and then losing in the second round. But to finally win two in a row, it feels great – for the program, too.”
And also because Bell is a senior.
“For sure,” he said. “This being my last go-around, like I said, we get to the tournament every year, but we couldn’t get over the hump and make it to the Sweet 16. But playing with these guys, it makes it a lot sweeter. I feel like we’re a better team.”
They’re also a deeper team. Ten Zags played against Iowa. Eight played at last 12 minutes.
“I feel like we can go nine or ten deep and not lose (much) from the starters,” Bell said. “That’s been a big thing for us this year. And obviously having (Kyle) Wiltjer and Przemek (Karnowski) playing as well as they’re playing right now makes it easier for the guards, too.”
Wiltjer scored a game-high 24 points on 10-of-12 shooting – including 4-of-6 from three-point range – to go with seven rebounds against Iowa. Karnowski and reserve forward Domantas Sabonis, meanwhile, combined for 27 points, 13 rebounds, four assists and two blocks. Even Bell and Kevin Pangos were tough to contain, combining for 26 points and seven assists.
“When we’re playing like that and shooting that well, we’re hard to beat,” Bell said.
Now it’s on to the Sweet 16, where No. 2 Gonzaga (34-2) will face No. 11 UCLA (22-13) this Friday at 7:15 p.m. ET. Many people thought the Bruins were lucky to even make the tournament, but they’ve responded with wins over SMU and UAB.
“We have to beat them to get to the Elite Eight,” Bell said. “Hopefully we can come out like we did against Iowa and keep this thing rolling.”
Gonzaga is seeking its first Elite Eight since 1999 and its first Final Four in program history.
The Zags have had a great deal of success in the regular season, but that hasn’t always translated to success in the NCAA Tournament, as they’ve reached the Sweet 16 just three times since 2001. Granted, that’s three more times than the vast majority of programs in America, but Gonzaga has not been the second-weekend regulars that programs such as Kentucky and Michigan State have been.
Have the Zags shed the mid-major label, or do they still have a lot to prove?
“I feel like we’re an elite team, but obviously a lot of people didn’t even have us to this point,” Bell said. “We’re going to play with a chip on our shoulder and try to prove everybody wrong, that we are an elite team (and that) we can play with the big schools.”