Number one seed Arizona collides with eighth-seeded Gonzaga in a third round NCAA Tournament matchup Sunday for the right to advance to the Sweet 16. Recent history aside, the 2003 classic pitting top-ranked Arizona against ninth-seeded Gonzaga immediately springs to mind. The Wildcats ultimately outlasted the Zags 96-95 in overtime, and if this game resembles that barnburner, a tasty treat is forthcoming.
Arizona’s road to the tourney was hardly as trouble-free as its 31-4 overall record might indicate. After a preseason number 6 ranking, the Willdcats ripped through their non-conference slate unblemished, highlighted by a 72-66 victory over then no. 6 Duke and a narrow 72-70 win over Michigan, in which junior G Nick Johnson hit six consecutive free throws in the closing seconds, to take a 13-0 record and number one national ranking into conference play.
Pac-12 play began just as dominantly as the non-conference schedule ended for the Wildcats and they would trounce Washington State 60-25 in their league opener, holding them to the fewest points in the history of Arizona’s McKale Center. Arizona would win its first seven conference games before losing to Cal 60-58 and suffering two more losses to win the Pac-12 regular season crown with a 15-3 finish. The Wildcats would also reach the final of the Pac-12 tournament, but lose 75-71 to UCLA in the championship game.
Meanwhile, Gonzaga finished its 2013-14 campaign with similar results. The Zags did not impress with their non-conference slate, however, losing to arguably their only two non-conference notables in Dayton and Kansas State. The Bulldogs were more up and down in West Coast Conference play, winning their first four and reaching the number 22 national ranking before dropping their first league game to Portland 82-73. Gonzaga would then plummet from the rankings, but take their next seven and re-enter the rankings at number 23 before losing 60-54 to then no. 24 Memphis and immediately falling out of the rankings again. The Zags closed their WCC schedule by taking five of their last seven to win both the regular season and conference tournament crowns.
While Arizona fell short of routing sixteenth-seeded Weber State in its second round NCAA Tournament matchup and came away with an unspectacular 68-59 showing, Gonzaga’s single-digit win over Marcus Smart and ninth-seeded Oklahoma State was far more impressive. The Bulldogs shot an accurate 25 of 50 from the floor and connected on 9 of 18 from outside the arc, while holding the Cowboys to 40.0 percent from the floor and 3 of 15 from distance. All-American Ok State G Marcus Smart went off, totaling 23 points, 13 rebounds and 7 assists, but junior G Kevin Pangos’ game-high 26 points, including 12 of 14 from the free throw line, appear to have been the difference.
Gonzaga may always be an NCAA Tournament underdog, but its stats belie it. Seventeen March Madness appearances, five Sweet 16 appearances and one Elite 8 appearances all poke holes in the notion. Arizona has the pedigree, though, and it is hard to argue with Gonzaga being an underdog in this NCAA Tournament matchup. And with 31 tournament appearances, sixteen Sweet 16 appearances, nine Elite 8 appearances, four Final 4 appearances and one National Championship, the Zags might always be an underdog against Arizona.
Commentary by Rick Sarlat