The Sweet 16 features just two double digit seeded teams. Neither can really be classified as a “Cinderella” as one comes from the ACC (Syracuse) and the other is a perennial mid-major power (Gonzaga). The two teams will meet on Friday night to play for the right to advance to the Elite Eight on Sunday.
For Gonzaga, this is the furthest they’ve made it in the tournament since 2009. The past couple of years the Bulldogs have entered the tournament with high expectations and bowed out quickly. This season seems to be the reverse, which begs the question, what’s different about this year’s team?
“I think the fact that they had to battle through so much adversity throughout this season,” said Dan Dickau on CBS Sports Radio’s After Hours with Amy Lawrence. “Last year you just kind of pegged in this team to be in the NCAA Tournament with the ability and the opportunity to make a run because of the senior guards as well as Wiltjer becoming available after a transfer from Kentucky and Przemek Karnowski, and everyone was really interested to see Sabonis last year. When Prezemek Karnowski went out with back injuries early in December, it really changed the complexion and changed the focus of this team.”
The rough patch that followed Karnowski’s injury saw the team go 2-3, with losses against Arizona and UCLA before getting back on track and starting off conference play with five straight wins. It was during that stretch that the Bulldogs inexperienced guards really struggled.
“There were some growing pains. In particular the growing pains were from the guards who had their ups and downs, their bumps and bruises throughout the way,” said Dickau. “You have to give those guards a lot of credit for staying with Coach Few’s message and believing it. And the coaching staff as well to just continue to understand ‘hey it’s a process’.”
In the first two tournament games, those young guards have come to play as the combination of freshman Josh Perkins and sophomore Silas Melson have averaged 15 points and 4.5 assists to just 2 turnovers. More important that the stats, is the confidence with which they’ve played, which is why Dickau believes they can continue to win.
“The one thing that they don’t have is great experience in the back court, but you can get around that and you can work through that in March if you play with great confidence and great energy,” said Dickau. “That’s exactly what they’re doing right now.”