I can still feel the energy surge from the crowd at Seattle’s Key Arena as Matt Santangelo found Richie Frahm for a 3 pointer, and Casey Calvary leaped up to block a shot.  That was the Gonzaga University basketball team which cherished the under dog mentality and far exceeded expectations in the NCAA tournament.

The 1999 Zags were all too glad to wear Cinderella’s glass slipper in Seattle as they upset Minnesota and Stanford in the first two rounds.  Playing with house money, they knocked off Florida, before falling to UConn in the region final.

While Gonzaga has qualified for the “Big Dance” every year since, they for one reason or another have never climbed back to the elite eight.  Some times they have drawn difficult match-ups.  Other times star players like Adam Morrison or Kelly Olynyk went cold at the wrong moments.

So the Bulldogs return to Key Arena this Friday as the number two seed of the South Region, and again have great expectations to make a deep  run in the tournament. Senior guard Gary Bell Jr. told  am 1090TheFan he will use previous early round losses as motivation this time.

“For sure, we always think back to that, but we are a totally different team than we were two years ago,” said Bell Jr. “We’re going to play it one game at a time, and give it our all.  There’s no regrets.  You put it all out there on the table and fight for everything.”

The Zags can match up with any style they see in this tournament.  They have big men with great mid-range shooting touch.  They have an all-conference senior point guard in Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr.’s perimeter defense, and a slashing scorer in Byron Wesley.

Suffering a late season loss to BYU forced the guys from Spokane to focus on the hard work which has produced a sterling 32-2 record.

“It helped our team because we had to reflect on it and watch film.  It helped to know we are not invincible, and can get beat if we don’t play up to our standards.  Hopefully that loss will make us play better in the NCAA tournament,” shared Bell Jr.

In my bracket, I have Gonzaga rolling past North Dakota St. and handling the winner of Iowa-Davidson.  While they’ve disappointed so many fans and wrecked thousands of office pools over the past 15 years, I’m picking the Zags to exorcise their basketball demons and reach the Final Four.

The best thing Gonzaga can do is play like they’re the hunters instead of the hunted. Maybe coach Mark Few should show them highlights of that 1999 Zags team which played free of pressure, and eagerly wore Cinderella’s glass slipper.

-Bill Swartz,  1090TheFan-

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