Far removed from dark horse status when it comes to the NCAA Tournament, the top-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs have the nation's undivided attention as they open up play in the second round of the West Region on Thursday afternoon versus Southern University at EnergySolutions Arena.
Top-seeded Gonzaga was nearly perfect during the 2012-13 regular season, bowing only twice against a pair of top-15 programs in Illinois and Butler, the latter coming on a miracle play at the buzzer by a single point in the middle of January. Since that defeat to the other Bulldogs, the Zags have been untouchable, running their win streak to 14 in a row as they went through the West Coast Conference schedule unscathed (16-0) under the direction of Mark Few who has the best winning percentage of any active head coach in college basketball.
Because of all their success, the Bulldogs earned a bye through to the semifinals of the WCC Tournament, en route to crushing both Loyola Marymount and Saint Mary's by double figures as they secured their 12 tournament title since 1995, and now have the most wins of any team with 31.
As for the 16th-seeded Jaguars, they finished in a tie for second in the Southwestern Athletic Conference with a mark of 15-3, trailing only Texas Southern (16-2), although Southern did have the best overall record of any team in the league at 23-9.
The top seed in the SWAC Tournament, Southern defeated Alabama A&M by a score of 72-59 in the semifinals, and then slipped by Prairie View by a single point in the title game, 45-44, in order to gain entrance into the Big Dance.
Gonzaga has played in the NCAA Tournament a total of 15 times previously, producing a record of 17-15, but the team has failed to get into the round of 16 in any one of the previous three appearances. The level of success for Southern has been far less in this event as the team shows a 1-7 record over the years.
Salt Lake City has been good to the Bulldogs previously in this environment, with the team winning three of its five tournament games in the city over the years.
The Bulldogs won the only previous meeting between these two programs just two years ago when Southern made a visit to the McCarthey Athletic Center and was turned back in a lopsided 117-72 final.
The winner of this matchup will be back in action on Saturday in the third round versus the survivor of the Wichita State/Pittsburgh meeting for the right to represent the region in the Sweet 16.
One of the better defensive teams to enter the NCAA Tournament this season, Southern has held opponents to a mere 57.1 ppg over the course of 32 contests. Those teams have shot a collective 36.5 percent from the floor and a mere 28.4 percent behind the 3-point line, which has made it easier for the Jaguars to capture wins with a scoring advantage of 10.6 ppg. Doing most of the damage for Southern, Derick Beltran is pouring in 15.9 ppg, even though he is shooting only 39.9 percent from the field while playing almost 35 minutes per outing. While Beltran has started every game for the Jags, the opposite is true for Malcolm Miller who is a perfect reserve and is just a fraction of a point behind Beltran in the scoring department with his 15.8 ppg, thanks to his 46.0 percent accuracy beyond the arc, while also grabbing 6.0 rpg which is second on the unit.
Stealing the headlines in the Pacific Northwest this season was WCC Player of the Year Kelly Olynyk, who showed that even a big man can run the floor and change the pace of a game. Olynyk led the Bulldogs with his 17.5 ppg and was second on the unit with 7.2 rpg, trailing only Elias Harris (14.9 ppg) who was responsible for 7.4 rpg. The all-conference standout played just under 26 minutes per outing, shooting 65.2 percent from the field, due mainly to the fact that the Bulldogs were consistently burying the competition by a staggering 18.2 ppg. Kevin Pangos (11.5 ppg), the leading 3-point shooter for the program as he knocked down 70-of-166 on the outside, was second on the team in assists with 106. First in that passing category was backup David Stockton, who took more than a few pages out of his father's (John) playbook in order to deliver on 109 dishes.