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Mar 22, 2024 2:34 pm

Kansas, Gonzaga test mettle with spot in Sweet 16 on line

Kansas Jayhawks

Two of the top programs this century meet for just the third time when Kansas and Gonzaga battle for a Sweet 16 spot in Midwest Region play on Saturday in Salt Lake City.

The fourth-seeded Jayhawks and fifth-seed Bulldogs are the only teams to win at least one game in each of the past 15 NCAA Tournaments.

Gonzaga (26-7) is attempting to reach its ninth consecutive Sweet 16. The Mark Few-coached Bulldogs have won 10 of their past 11 games after routing McNeese 86-65 in Thursday’s first-round game.

“I’ve watched them play just about every opportunity I can, if I can stay up past midnight our time,” Jayhawks coach Bill Self said. “Of course, love Mark and the job he’s done. So much respect.”

Few was upbeat after the win over 12th-seeded McNeese.

“Loved our confidence, loved our approach. Again, 15 straight first-round wins, doing it is amazing,” Few said. “One of the hardest things to do is win a game in the NCAA Tournament.”

Kansas (23-10) has been eliminated in the second round in two of the past three years and won the NCAA title (2022) in the other.

The Jayhawks struggled down the stretch of the season and lost four of five games prior to the start of March Madness. Kansas also is without All-American forward Kevin McCullar Jr. (knee) for the rest of the season.

Kansas was pushed hard by 13th-seeded Samford in the opening round before registering a 93-89 victory. The Bulldogs played a fast pace with intense defensive pressure and cut their 22-point deficit to one before the Jayhawks escaped.

“I think matchups in the tournament matter a lot more than where you’re seeded,” Self said. “That’s played out to be true throughout (Thursday). I think there’s been a lot of things happen in the tournament that has been a little funky.

“This game obviously could have gone the other way, so we feel really, really fortunate.”

The play of standout center Hunter Dickinson was welcome as he toughed it out through a shoulder injury to produce 19 points, 20 rebounds and four blocked shots.

KJ Adams Jr. also excelled with 20 points on 10-of-13 shooting in a game in which Kansas shot 60.3 overall from the field but was outscored by 30 from the 3-point line.

“To get outscored 30 points beyond the arc and still win a game is pretty remarkable,” Self said. “We certainly can’t let that happen moving forward, to have a chance.”

Gonzaga made 10 of 21 from 3-point range during the win over McNeese. Nolan Hickman knocked down three and three others made two.

Graham Ike was 6 of 6 from the field and contributed 16 points and 10 rebounds and Anton Watson had a solid all-around game with 13 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists. Watson fell one assist short of the second triple-double in program history.

“My teammates wanted me to play and my coaches didn’t want me to get hurt,” Watson said after watching the final 4:49 of the contest. “It’s kind of 50-50. I definitely wanted to stay in a little bit, but the good thing is we have another game to play and I have another chance.”

The Zags fell out of the national rankings during the season for the first time in eight years but have been clicking down the stretch.

“If you’ve been watching Gonzaga basketball the last month or two, you’d understand that there is something special happening,” Bulldogs point guard Andrew Nembhard said. “We’re playing good basketball. We’ve got another tough one Saturday, so we’re going to lock in on the scout and figure these guys out.”

The teams split the previous two meetings with Kansas winning 80-66 at home during the 1998-99 season and Gonzaga prevailing 102-90 in The Fort Myers Tip-Off to open the 2020-21 season.

–Field Level Media

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