SEATTLE (AP) – Washington coach Mike Neighbors could go through a long list of ways that the NCAA Tournament now is strikingly different from a year ago when the Huskies had a minuscule chance at making a Final Four run.
But Neighbors focused on one specific aspect Friday as the Huskies prepared for their first-round matchup against No. 14 seed Montana State.
“This year, (former President Barack) Obama picked us in the Final Four,” Neighbors said. “OK, so that’s the difference.”
Washington’s matchup with the Bobcats is the nightcap on Saturday to a pod that has a decidedly local feel. In Saturday’s opener, No. 6 seed Oklahoma faces No. 11 seed Gonzaga, with the Bulldogs looking to make another deep postseason run as a double-digit seed. Gonzaga has been a No. 11 or No. 12 five times since 2009; the Bulldogs have won at least one game in four of those five tournaments.
The Bulldogs would like to add another tournament victory to their resume after missing the NCAAs last season for the first time since 2008.
“They’re very good and they play the game the way I think it’s supposed to be played,” Oklahoma coach Sherrie Coale said of Gonzaga. “They play together, they’re fundamental, they’re confident, they have an identity, they know who they are, they play really, really hard, and they’re connected.”
Whether it’s being the No. 3 seed in the Oklahoma City Regional, the fact the Huskies get to host the first two rounds, or the long list of ticket requests that have hounded Neighbors this week, the postseason journey for the Huskies will be vastly different than last season.
A year ago, Washington’s Final Four run took place almost exclusively on the East Coast, with plenty of air travel to get to College Park, Maryland, and Lexington, Kentucky and eventually Indianapolis for the Final Four. That run also created expectations that have been following the Huskies for most of this season, whether it was proving the legitimacy of the Final Four run, or Kelsey Plum’s chase and eventual conquest of the NCAA all-time scoring record. For the most part, the Huskies have handled it without issue, rolling to a 27-5 record.
But there have been the blemishes and most of them in front of big crowds like what’s expected on Saturday. The Huskies stumbled at Notre Dame and Oregon State, and at home against Stanford in front of the largest crowd in school history. The final stumble came in the Pac-12 quarterfinals in a 70-69 loss to Oregon.
“I think we are getting better at it,” Neighbors said. “I don’t think we are 100 percent comfortable with it all the time but I do think we are better prepared for it than we would have been if it were the first time ever that we had the place full.”
Other things to watch Saturday:
SOONER SLIDE: The two-week break between losing in the Big 12 Tournament and the start of the NCAAs was beneficial for Oklahoma.
The Sooners closed the regular season losing two of their final three games then were routed in the Big 12 quarterfinals by West Virginia. The slide at the end of the season came after a stretch during January and February when Oklahoma won seven of eight.
“This year the two-week period has been very advantageous,” Coale said. “We had a chance to regroup and reboot as we looked forward to what was coming next and at the same time really look over the ways that we played and the things we wish we could have done better and have to do better.”
SURGING ZAGS: Gonzaga is 17-2 since starting West Coast Conference play with a pair of losses. Jill Barta was the star of the WCC Tournament with a career-high 37 points in the championship game victory over Saint Mary’s, the second time this season Barta topped 30 points.
PLUM ASSIGNMENT: Montana State’s reward for winning its final seven games of the regular season, the Big Sky Tournament title and earning just the second NCAA Tournament bid in school history is trying to stymie Plum, the best scorer in NCAA history.
“We definitely don’t shut her down, I’ll start there,” Montana State coach Tricia Binford said. “It’s shot selection, it’s making her earn every shot that she gets, which she is very good at. We want to make sure we’re in place.”
The Bobcats will play in the NCAAs 24 years to the day of their only other tournament appearance, in the same building, and against the same opponent. Montana State lost to Washington 80-51 on March 18, 1993, in the opening round.
Copyright 2017 The Associated Press.