MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP)—Josh Heytvelt and his teammates are ready to turn back the clock—to those days when Gonzaga was the dark horse that seemed to come out of nowhere every March.
“It’s kind of nice to be the underdog,” Heytvelt said Thursday. “Most of the season we’ve had the bull’s-eye on our back—through our conference and a lot of preseason games. There’s a lot of hype for Carolina. The fans don’t expect anything but a championship from those guys.”
Gonzaga was the higher seed for its first two victories in this year’s NCAA tournament.
That’s about to change in a big way.
Up next is top-seeded North Carolina, the preseason favorite to win the national title and one of college basketball’s most storied programs. The Tar Heels are seeking their 99th NCAA tournament victory, which would break a tie with Kentucky for the most by any school.
For Heytvelt and the Bulldogs, this is all a little refreshing.
“To have a little bit of pressure off the back, to come in and be able to play a little bit looser, it’s kind of a relief,” Heytvelt said.
The Bulldogs have spent the last decade proving they can play with the big boys. Hardly anyone considers Gonzaga much of a mid-major anymore—the Zags have been dominant in the West Coast Conference and received a No. 4 seed in this year’s NCAA tournament. This is a far cry from the program that came on the scene nationally with a run to the regional finals as a No. 10 seed in 1999.
Still, on Friday night in the South Regional semifinals against the Tar Heels, Gonzaga (28-5) will be back in a familiar role—trying to shake up an NCAA tournament in which few favorites have lost.
“I’ll tell you what worries me. I think they’ve got a team full of leaders,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “You go through that whole team, and it’s guys that really, really do good things for them.”
Williams could say the same about his Tar Heels, who were in the Final Four in 2008 and have even bigger goals in mind this season. Tyler Hansbrough recently became the Atlantic Coast Conference’s career scoring leader—and he wasn’t even this season’s player of the year in the league. That honor went to teammate Ty Lawson, the speedy point guard who has been fighting a toe injury but expects to play through it.
Lawson scored 23 points in a second-round victory over LSU.
“Having Ty on the floor, you generally get easier opportunities,” Williams said. “In half-court with his penetration, in the half-court with the fact that they have to come out and play his outside shot.”
The Tar Heels (30-4) are unlikely to overlook Gonzaga, especially since the Zags beat North Carolina at Madison Square Garden in November 2006. Heytvelt outplayed Hansbrough in that game, and Jeremy Pargo and Matt Bouldin both scored in double figures for the Bulldogs.
All four of those players figure to play key roles again this time around.
“We think we have one of the most talented teams we’ve had here, and I don’t know if we really felt like that the night we played them in New York,” Bouldin said. “And they too … are obviously much more experienced. They’ve developed into much better players. I mean, every one of their guys have gotten better since the time we played them.”
The 6-foot-11 Heytvelt leads Gonzaga at 14.9 points per game, and he also shoots 41 percent from 3-point range. The Bulldogs shoot 39 percent from long range as a team—Bouldin and 6-foot-11 Austin Daye are also over 40 percent.
North Carolina’s success is built on its fast-paced offense, which is averaging 90 points a game. The Tar Heels have so many options they’ve been able to withstand a shooting slump by Danny Green. Guard Wayne Ellington scored 48 points in the team’s first two NCAA tournament games and went 6-of-11 from 3-point range.
“I feel like it’s that time of year where I think everybody should be elevating their game,” Ellington said. “I’ve just been stepping up to the challenge.”
Gonzaga will try to slow the Tar Heels down—no easy task if Lawson is even close to healthy.
“That’s the one that keeps you up at night,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “Just the speed at which he plays.”
In the second round, Gonzaga beat 12th-seeded Western Kentucky 83-81 on Demetri Goodson’s running bank shot with 0.9 seconds remaining. That kept the Bulldogs from becoming an upset victim.
Gonzaga won’t have to worry about that this time. The Bulldogs are underdogs once again—and they seem pretty comfortable with that.
“Just an opportunity to play Carolina—probably the greatest basketball program in the history of college basketball—I think our guys have a great sense of appreciation for that,” Few said.