After a season in which it reeled off 17 straight wins in conference play, the Gonzaga University men’s basketball team, led by Japan’s NBA hopeful Rui Hachimura, was handed the top seed in the West Region of the NCAA tournament.
Sunday’s announcement gave Gonzaga its third No. 1 seed in seven years, topping a difficult region that includes Michigan, Texas Tech, Florida State, Marquette, Buffalo, Nevada and Syracuse.
Despite finishing with a disappointing 13-point loss to St. Mary’s in the West Coast Conference title game, the Bulldogs will go in search of a historic first NCAA championship with key players, Hachimura and Brandon Clarke in particular, having had breakout years.
Gonzaga is joined in the west bracket by fellow heavyweights Michigan as well as Texas Tech, Florida State and Marquette.
The 12th-seeded Murray State, with possible top-three NBA draft pick Ja Morant at point guard, could meet the Zags in the third round.
The team’s first opponent will be determined by a play-in game between Prairie View A&M and Fairleigh Dickinson universities, though neither is likely to prove a large hurdle.
Hachimura, however, is taking nothing for granted.
“Whether we are first or second seed, the opponent is going to be strong,” said the Toyama Prefecture-born player who averaged 20.1 points on 60 percent shooting as well as 6.6 rebounds in 33 games for the Bulldogs this season.
“No matter who our opponent is, we have to beat them…As long as we perform to our capabilities, there shouldn’t be a problem.”
The Zags will open the NCAA Tournament in Salt Lake City, where they don’t have the fondest of memories.
Gonzaga was a No. 1 seed for the first time six years ago and flopped in Salt Lake City, losing to eventual Final Four team Wichita State.
The good news: Gonzaga has everyone healthy.
The Bulldogs have played most of the season without forward Killian Tillie due to foot injuries, yet kept steamrolling opponents. Gonzaga beat Duke in the Maui Invitational title game and had a perfect regular-season run through the WCC, setting a conference record for margin of victory at 27 points per game.
Tillie returned for the WCC tournament semifinals and even though Gonzaga scored a season-low 47 points in the title game, it has one of the nation’s most talented rosters.
“We’ve had pressure the whole season on us,” Gonzaga big man Brandon Clarke said. “It’s something we’re all used to by now. We’re going to take it like it’s any other game, but we have to make sure we’re all focused and we’re all ready.”
The West’s lower seeds include Baylor, Murray State, Vermont, Northern Kentucky and Florida.
With the consensus No. 1 college player Zion Williamson at the controls, Duke is the top overall seed. Virginia and North Carolina were awarded top seeds in their respective regions.
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