Zags’ road not pretty, but it is possible

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SEATTLE — It’s daunting.

But it’s also doable.

Just remember the lunch pail and steel-toed boots.

In a season of firsts, Gonzaga annexed another one Sunday, winning a debate that involved the University of Miami for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Raise your hands, Zags fans, if, say, 20 years or two months ago, you could ever have envisioned Gonzaga pushing a team that won the ACC regular-season and league tournament to the No. 2 line.

“Great day out here at Gonzaga,” coach Mark Few said. “It’s an honor to be put on that No. 1 line. There were a lot of worthy teams that certainly deserve it as much as we did.”

That was the only real suspense around Spokane on Sunday. Going to Salt Lake City was a virtual given, and, nothing against Southern University, but the opponent when you’re a No. 1 seed is never going to be the stuff of riveting drama.

Asked about Southern at the dinner hour, Few didn’t know much, just enough to co-opt some coaching frown wrinkles.

“They play a low-possession game,” he reported. “Their championship game (for the Southwestern Athletic title) was 45-44.”

If the top-ranked Zags aim to hang around the 2013 tournament a while, they’d better get used to half-court games. The West bracket is dotted with them, from Pittsburgh and Wichita State to a potential Sweet 16 matchup against Wisconsin, to — far down the road — a possible meeting again with Ohio State, the team that knocked Gonzaga out a year ago.

It all looks rugged more than racehorse, and if Gonzaga is up for that kind of game, then it can go as far, or further, than the Elite Eight team in 1999 that ignited this whole business for the Zags.

“I noticed that a little bit, too,” said Mike Hart, the senior forward, on a conference call. “The Wisconsins of the world were on there (in the West).

“I think we’re adapted to play against anybody. We can play any speed against any sort of team.”

Few’s teams have always been styled on dual premises: You need to be able to mash the ball inside, but also to push it. Over the years, they’ve been pretty good at both.

Meanwhile, see if this quote rings a bell: “The way to beat Gonzaga is to out-tough them.”

That was uttered a year ago this week by Doug Gottlieb, now a CBS analyst, who has lately been playing sort of the anti-Zag. In 2012, he spoke in advance of Gonzaga’s trip back to play West Virginia. That was when GU won 77-54, matching WVU in rebounding. In the ouster against Ohio State, Gonzaga had a slight edge against the Jared Sullinger-led Buckeyes on the boards.

But there was Gottlieb again Sunday, saying, “The way to beat Gonzaga is to be physical.”

We’ll soon find out. Few admits the Zags occasionally zone out on the boards, but the fact is, they’re 10th in the nation in rebound margin (7.4), and if you want to ascribe it to the West Coast Conference, remember that in its pillaging of the Big 12 this year, Gonzaga out-rebounded Oklahoma by 27, Kansas State by 7 and Oklahoma State by 16. That wasn’t the minuet they were doing out there.

“They’ve shown they can handle all different styles,” Few said. “We’ve played low-possession games throughout this year and done OK. We’ve run with teams, faced zone, faced pressure man-to-man. We’ve faced really good interior play and excellent guard play.

“These guys have kind of aced every test.”

Make no mistake, nothing is easy at this time of year.

“We can’t look past anybody,” said center Kelly Olynyk. “Even Southern is going to be ready to play.”

Win that, and you know Pitt comes at you with a blacksmith’s game, and the Panthers — surprise — are No. 9 in Ken Pomeroy’s offensive efficiency rankings. As for Wichita State, the Shockers are No. 7 in rebound margin and Gregg Marshall, an excellent coach, gave Gonzaga all it wanted in a narrow first-round defeat in 2005 when he was at Winthrop.

Playing a team like Wisconsin or Ohio State would be a two-hour exercise in trying to get gum off your shoe. A three- or four-minute scoring drought might be enough to send you packing.

Two guys who loom especially large for the Zags in this region: Senior forward Elias Harris, sometimes questioned for his ability to play through contact, and backup Sam Dower, a finesse forward who will be tested.

But it’s out there for the Zags. The road to the Final Four might not be pretty. But it’s possible.

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