SALT LAKE CITY — When Gonzaga last flew into Utah for the NCAA tournament, the Bulldogs were in unfamiliar territory.
The team, known to NCAA fans as the Cinderella darling for years, was a No. 1 seed for the first time and a target. In that 2013 tournament, Gonzaga didn’t even make it out of the region site with its season intact.
Now, four years later, Gonzaga finds itself once again a No. 1 seed and playing in Salt Lake City in true deja vu fashion. While many players on that team have long since moved on, head coach Mark Few knows that it means the roles are completely reversed compared to the first years the Zags had qualified for the tournament.
“The thing I told them is they need to be prepared for it’s probably going to be a road-type environment,” Few said, during the team’s pre-tournament press conference Wednesday. “It’s just the nature of sports, and everybody likes to root for underdogs. And if you’re No. 1, there’s not going to be a whole lot of people rooting for you except the Gonzaga people.”
Gonzaga is no longer in that role of trying to gain respect, especially after 19-straight tournament appearances. Even as critics say the Zags don’t belong as a No. 1 seed and many have said they believe they will be the first No. 1 seed knocked out of the tournament, Few points out the only people who matter liked what they saw out of his team.
“Nobody could have given us any more respect than a neutral group of people granting us the No. 1 seed,” he said. “A national group of basketball people on a committee gave us a No. 1 seed in this tournament. I don’t think we need to look for anything more than that."
However, being the No. 1 seed means you’re expected to win, as well, not just in the first round — where top-seeded teams are matched against No. 16 seeds — but in the following rounds.
This time around, the Zags have the same prize on their mind, which is reaching the Final Four for the first time in program history. However, they’re shaking off any thoughts of getting there just yet.
And a part of reaching that primary goal means canceling out any noise.
“We’ve been very goal-oriented all year,” said Nigel Williams-Goss, an All-American guard and Naismith Award finalist as the nation’s top player. “(We) compartmentalized the season; broke it up into nonconference, regular season, conference tournament and now the NCAA tournament. So far, we knocked off three out of our four goals.”
Reaching that final goal starts Thursday against No. 16 South Dakota State, a team that once was in Gonzaga’s shoes trying to gain respect across the country as a mid-major program.
“This isn’t a seven-game series, where I think we’d be fine,” Few said. “This is one game, one night and they have some very, very capable, talented players — dangerous players.”
Among the players Gonzaga is focused on stopping is sophomore forward Mike Daum, who is second in the nation in scoring at 25.3 points per game and third in player efficiency, according to College Reference.
He’s the guy that sticks out on tape for the players and even garnered high praise from Few, who compared the forward to a mix of two of Gonzaga's best players in program history: Kyle Wiltjer and Adam Morrison.
“He’s a great offensive player,” said Gonzaga center Przemek Karnowski. “He’s a big guy who can basically score from anywhere on the court, dribble (and) go to the basket. So we’re going to practice a couple of ways to guard him in practice — I cannot share that.”
Gonzaga’s players know keeping the season intact comes down to one game at a time. It’s one of the reasons Few thinks this team is different.
“I’ve been blessed to have great groups of guys and great teams, but these guys really haven’t had a bad night,” Few said. “They’ve been really, really focused. We had that bad 10-minute stretch against BYU, but we also came out at the start of the game and led 20-4 and we were ready to go. … It literally speaks volumes about their focus, their attention to detail and their ability on game night to rise and make sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing. It’s rare.”