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'Zags finally showing muscle, toughness

Now, we can finally use the word "tough" and "Gonzaga" in the same sentence again.

I tried it a couple of years ago, with the backcourt of Jeremy Pargo and Matt Bouldin, but it was a premature assessment of a 'Zags team that just wasn't overly physical.

They had Austin Daye and Josh Heytvelt up front and Micah Downs coming off the bench, three guys who would much rather loft up threes than step in the paint and go toe-to-toe.

But after seeing the eighth-seeded Bulldogs take down No. 9 seed Florida with a 67-60 win in the first round of the NCAA tournament Friday, this team is different.

Bouldin, now a senior, has always had a swagger and both a mental and physical toughness. But now he's got some help up front with Robert Sacre and freshman Elias Harris.

Sacre is a 7-footer who loves to mix it up. In fact, he actually wants to see Syracuse's big, strong wide-body Arinze Onuaku return on Sunday for the second-round matchup between the two teams.

Harris is a 6-foot-8 German who may not be quite as physical as Sacre, but he also doesn't back down from contact.

"If we got into a legitimate fight, we'd be fine," 'Zags assistant Ray Giacoletti said. "I wouldn't be worried at all."

It wasn't a brawl, but Gonzaga did have to go up against one of the biggest frontlines in the entire country: 7-foot-1 Solomon Alabi, 6-foot-9 Chris Singleton and 6-foot-8 Ryan Reid.

Gonzaga beat the Seminoles on the glass, 38-32. Sacre and Harris combined for 26 points and a dozen boards while FSU's trio managed 23 points and 13 rebounds.

Harris arrived on campus in Spokane late in the summer after playing in international competition, but it didn't take him long to discover how others viewed the 'Zags.

"People thought we were soft," Harris said. "Not anymore. We're junkyard dogs. We fight and play hard."

Gonzaga hasn't had a team like this since, well, J.P. Batista and Ronny Turiaf.

"We've been highly skilled the last few years," Few said. "I wouldn't have described us as physical."

"We have a different mindset this year," Sacre added. "I don't mind hitting people. Actually, I enjoy it."

However, the issue for the 'Zags has been maintaining that physicality.

"I think we've shown we are tough," Bouldin said. "But we've also had huge lapses and come out as soft as any team in the country."

That would likely begin to explain the losses to San Francisco and Loyola Marymount in WCC play. Well, that in addition to the youth and inexperience of guys like Harris and Sacre, who went from role guys to starters this year.

"But this is the toughest team I've played on," Bouldin admitted.

It starts with Sacre, who legitimately enjoys fighting in the post. He has had several head-to-head scraps with another physical big man, Saint Mary's senior Omar Samhan, and had little difficulty pushing the Seminoles' frontline around on Friday night.

"He came out with a purpose," Florida State associate head coach Stan Jones said after the game. "He's tough, and Bouldin's tough. There's no question about it."

Gonzaga was dominant in the first 20 minutes and took a 35-19 lead into the break while holding the Seminoles to just 21 percent shooting from the field.

Now, the Bulldogs advance to the second round for a matchup with top-seeded Syracuse.

Obviously, the key for Gonzaga against the Orange will be knocking down perimeter shots -- something that has been inconsistent for Few's team this season -- and also the rebounding margin.

"Sometimes we shoot the ball well, and sometimes we don't," Few said.

He'll need for at least two of his three perimeter shooters -- Bouldin, Gray and Harris -- to make shots and for Sacre and Harris to be able to hold their own against Syracuse's frontline.

It would certainly be less intimidating without Onuaku.

"I'd rather have him (Onuaku) out there," Sacre said. "Two mountains."

Not an easy climb, but the way these 'Zags like it.