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Originally published March 16, 2012 at 8:04 PM | Page modified March 16, 2012 at 9:22 PM

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Gonzaga faces another tough road to Sweet 16

As usual, Gonzaga was sensational in its first game of the NCAA tournament, blasting West Virginia. But the Zags are hoping they don't follow that with another forgettable second-game effort — this time, against Ohio State.

Seattle Times colleges reporter

Saturday

Gonzaga vs. Ohio State,

app. 11:45 a.m., Ch. 7

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PITTSBURGH — It was Casual Friday at the Consol Energy Center, which meant the Gonzaga head coach was wearing shorts at the press availabilities. This, five days after Selection Sunday.

Next?

"It's all about Saturday," said Zags assistant coach Tommy Lloyd. "That's been our motto since the final buzzer last night."

The Zags have come to that fork in the road again. Without the benefit of GPS, the mission is to take the path that says "Sweet 16," rather than "Back to Spokane."

You could make the case that in the past three tournaments, nobody's body of work in the country has been more impressive than Gonzaga's in the first game.

Sent to Buffalo two years ago, the Zags played Florida State, the top-rated field-goal-defense team nationally. Gonzaga shot 50 percent — the first opponent in 68 games to do that against FSU — built an early double-digit lead and hung on to win as a slight underdog.

Last year in Denver, Gonzaga, a No. 11 seed, broke away from St. John's early and flattened the Red Storm by 15 — again as a slight underdog.

Then came Thursday night against West Virginia, when the Zags, disadvantaged geographically, made the Mountaineers look hopeless in winning 77-54. During the week, the line on the game floated around a tossup.

You could fairly conclude from this that if you give Mark Few and his staff time to prepare, his team is a handful.

But you could also infer that the Zags have some 'splainin' to do in the next round.

In Buffalo, they went on to trail Syracuse by 30 and lose by 21. Last year in Denver, they were flummoxed by Jimmer Fredette and lost by 22 to BYU.

It can happen when Syracuse is a No. 1 seed, and you are trying to deconstruct the Orange zone, but Few alleged that 'Cuse "played harder than us." And Jimmer was Jimmer, capable of carpet-bombing the best teams, but Gonzaga never had the haziest answer.

So you wonder. And they wonder, too.

"I think it's more of a mindset than anything," said assistant coach Ray Giacoletti. "A hunger. We've got to find a way to get back to that point we were last Monday, where I know our guys had a chip on their shoulder about what they'd heard about being soft."

The easy answer — duh — is that when you're a significantly lower seed, as Gonzaga was both years, you're likely to get a premier team in that second game. And that's what awaits GU on Saturday when the Zags meet seventh-ranked, second-seeded Ohio State.

Ah, the wonders of the NCAA tournament. A Gonzaga program that was in many eyes a startup back in the 1990s, can play an Ohio State monolith so imposing it has intercollegiate sports in synchronized swimming, pistol and rifle — and just maybe, have a shot at winning.

Thad Matta, the Buckeyes coach, should know a little about that phenomenon. A decade ago, he coached at Butler, and then he coached at Xavier.

"I don't know if you can distinguish the difference between the 37th-best (prep) player in the country and the 137th-best," Matta said. "There are so many great players. What Gonzaga has done is establish their system and done a great job recruiting to it.

"I've always viewed Gonzaga as a top-20 program in the country."

If there's credence to that, it germinated back in 1999-2001, when Gonzaga owned the opening weekend, not just opening night.

"This second game is how we were branded," said Lloyd. "It's how we made our mark."

They beat a No. 2 seed in Stanford at KeyArena in 1999, and did the same to St. John's the next year. One win wasn't enough; they wanted the whole weekend, at least.

It will hardly be easy Saturday. The Buckeyes have Jared Sullinger in the middle and some nice pieces around him.

"This is a really good team that a lot of people picked for the Final Four, to win a national championship," Few said. "I'd rather play Wisconsin-Platteville."

Platteville isn't in the bracket. Gonzaga is, thanks to a typical command performance on opening night. The Zags need to strive for an encore rather than accept the final curtain.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com


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