|Gonzaga primed for another run, starting vs. UNC Greensboro|
After losing four key pieces from last season's national championship game team, Gonzaga was supposed to take a step back this year.
Instead the Zags (30-4) reloaded, rolling to their fourth 30-win season in six years and winning yet another West Coast Conference crown.
Their quest for a second straight trip to the Final Four begins Thursday in Boise, Idaho. The fourth-seeded Bulldogs will face No. 13 UNC Greensboro (27-7) in the first round of the West Region.
"We'd talked in the past about making a Final Four," Gonzaga coach Mark Few told the (Spokane, Wash.) Spokesman-Review. "Now we know how hard it really is. How you're going to have to play through a great player like (South Dakota State's) Mike Daum, how you're going to have to deal with a Northwestern making a run at you at some point. You're going to have to deal with the tenacity of a West Virginia for 40 minutes. All of that. It's not like a pie-in-the-sky fable anymore."
Last March, the Zags won five games before falling to North Carolina 71-65 in the final.
Gonzaga returnees such as point guard Josh Perkins know what it takes to advance.
"You saw it last year," Perkins said. "Oregon lost on a free-throw box-out. Things matter more in March that don't really show up other times and really separate teams."
Sophomore forward Killian Tillie, a reserve on last year's team, is a key cog in the 2017-18 version.
"You walk into the gym and he's always working out and getting shots up," Zags guard Zach Norvell Jr. said. "To see it pay off for some of these guys feels great."
The work paid off handsomely in the WCC Tournament last week in Las Vegas.
Tillie averaged 24 points in the Zags' three wins and made 78 percent of his field-goal attempts, including 13 of 14 -- that's 93 percent -- from 3-point range.
He scored 22 points as Gonzaga overwhelmed BYU in the title game.
"Whatever he did, whatever he's eating I want to get on the same plan," Perkins said. "He was fantastic."
UNC Greensboro qualified for the tournament by beating East Tennessee State to win the Southern Conference championship.
The Spartans will be able to match the Bulldogs' size -- Tillie is 6-10 and senior Johnathan Williams is 6-9 -- with their frontline, 6-foot-9 Jordy Kuiper, 6-8 Kyrin Galloway and SoCon defensive player of the year James Dickey, who is 6-foot-10.
East Tennessee State coach Steve Forbes knows the Spartans well.
His Buccaneers beat UNCG in last season's SoCon title game but lost two of three to the Spartans this year.
"They have the length to guard post players and change shots at the rim," Forbes said. "Where they're pretty good is if you beat them off the dribble, they can change shots with their length and they do a pretty good job keeping the ball in front of them.
Add to that UNCG guard Francis Alonso, who shot better than 40 percent from long range this year.
"In my 29 years of coaching, he's as good as anybody I've coached against moving without the ball," Forbes said. "They're really good at finding him. He's really good at catch-and-shoot and putting his head down and driving and drawing fouls."
The match-up will feature a clash of styles: Gonzaga is No. 9 in the country in scoring (84.5 points per game), and the Spartans are sixth in scoring defense (62.4).
The Spartans last made the tournament in 2001, soon after Gonzaga started its 20-year run of bids.
"You look at the stature they have now, their history and where they came from, and they're the mid-major model," Kuiper said, according to the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record. "Of course, that's something we'd like to someday identify with ourselves. We want to get to that stage. But the way you do it is focus on our own selves. The focus isn't on our opponents, or the flow of seasons and games. We keep that mindset, and we'll take it to Idaho."