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Pokes and Zags mix it up in West Regional action

By The Sports Network   |   March 21, 2014 at 11:00 AM
San Diego, CA (SportsNetwork.com) - They used to be the Cinderella Story among the mid-majors, but now the Gonzaga Bulldogs are making it a habit of being contenders in the NCAA Tournament.

This year the squad is taking up a spot in the West Region of the Big Dance as they clash with the Oklahoma State Cowboys in the second round of the event at Viejas Arena in San Diego.

The eighth seed in the region, Gonzaga has appeared in tourney every year since 1999, having dominated conference play like none other during that stretch. The team may have fallen out of the top-25 rankings, but still the Bulldogs were the team to beat when the West Coast Conference descended on Orleans Arena in Last Vegas last week.

As the top seed in the WCC Tournament, the 'Zags earned a bye through to the quarterfinals where they slipped by Santa Clara (77-75) before stomping a stumbling Saint Mary's squad (70-54). In the title game on March 11, Gonzaga dominated BYU, although the final score of 75-64 didn't truly tell the whole story. It was the 12th conference tournament title for a Bulldogs squad that has now appeared in the championship round each year since 1998.

Gonzaga head coach Mark Few has watched his team win at least one game in each of the last five NCAA Tournaments, but the team has not advanced to the Sweet 16 since 2006.

While the Bulldogs have made the postseason a yearly celebration, ninth-seeded Oklahoma State has done well for itself as well, making it back to the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year and fourth time since 2009. Head coach Travis Ford has guided OSU to a 21-12 mark overall in 2013-14, but just 8-10 when facing off against the rest of the Big 12 Conference.

The Cowboys ran into a very rough period at the end of January for about three weeks as they lost seven straight conference outings. During the run, Marcus Smart was suspended three games for shoving a fan, just part of the reason why OSU hit the skids. The team bounced back to win four straight and five of six down the stretch, but ended up bowing to Kansas in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament, 77-70, in overtime.

They might be far removed from their two national titles from back in 1945 and 1946, but still the Cowboys can claim to be one of only a handful of programs to have won the championship in back-to-back campaigns. The team has won 38 of 62 games played in the tourney over the years, but has been one-and-done in both 2010 and 2013 with setbacks against Georgia Tech and Oregon, respectively.

Gonzaga is a perfect 5-0 all-time against the Cowboys, the most recent of those victories coming in Stillwater on New Year's Eve 2012 when both squads were nationally ranked and the Bulldogs slipped by in a 69-68 final.

The winner of this meeting will content against the survivor of the Weber State/Arizona matchup in the third round of the tourney on Sunday.

Smart, a two-time All-Big 12 Conference First Team selection has been asked to carry the weight for the Cowboys again this year, which is why his absence during suspension was felt so hard. A starter in all 30 games in which he appeared, Smart is averaging 17.8 ppg and 5.7 rpg, not to mention placing first on the unit with both 141 assists and 83 steals. Few players in the nation have the potential to lead their team in as many categories each time they hit the floor, but Smart is one of those stars who can turn the trick for OSU.

Also providing substantial scoring punch is Markel Brown with his 17.1 ppg, lending a hand both on the glass (5.3 rpg) and in the passing department (97 assists), with some of those dishes going to Le'Bryan Nash and Phil Forte who check in with 14.2 and 13.3 ppg, respectively. Forte has been a master on the perimeter, connecting on a team-best 98 3-pointers, converting his chances at a 44.5 percent clip. Because of all their efforts, the Cowboys were one of the more powerful offensive squads in the nation this season with 80.3 ppg.

Perhaps the names of the Bulldogs don't roll off the tongue this year as they have in seasons past, but it would be a mistake to overlook this squad simply because the press throughout the country have not given them their due. Sam Dower Jr., who was named the WCC Tournament MVP, was also an All-WCC Team selection this year as well after averaging a team-best 15.0 ppg and 7.1 rpg. An impressive 59.0 percent shooter form the floor, Dower Jr. has also been quite adept at making opponents pay dearly when he steps to the free-throw line, connecting on 82.8 percent of those chances, including a near-perfect 23-of-26 at the charity stripe during the WCC Tournament.

Kevin Pangos was responsible for another 14.1 ppg as he knocked down 41.1 percent of his tries on the perimeter, while Gary Bell Jr. (11.2 ppg) took it up a few notches on the outside with 42.7 percent accuracy beyond the arc. While he may never completely get out of the shadow cast by his legendary father John, David Stockton has certainly made a name for himself with this version of the Bulldogs, thanks to 7.5 ppg and a team-best 143 assists, although he could stand some improvement on his shot selection on the perimeter where he is only 23.4 percent. But make no mistake, Stockton won't give up setting the table for teammates or being one of the emotional leaders for the Bulldogs.

[SportsNetwork.com]

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