It was a busy day at the Rose Garden in Portland. All eight teams that are playing here held a news conference and a shoot around. They all also held "closed to the public" practices at an off-site location.
The Bulldogs appeared very loose...laughing and having a good time (on the practice floor and in the locker room). I was expecting more Zag fans to be here for the shoot around, but there was a pretty limited crowd. Maybe a lot of people are going to show up tomorrow. At least the turnout today wasn't as bad as Akron. We ran into just two Zips fans the whole day.
The Zags sound like they are very confident. During the press conference, Josh Heytvelt said that Gonzaga is just as capable as anyone to make a run deep into the tournament. He said the tournament field is very "balanced" and there isn't a real standout national champion right now. I agree with him. There are a lot of teams who are in the mix for the title. Can Gonzaga make a good run? We'll find out starting tomorrow.
The Akron players all seemed very excited to be here. I travelled with Washington State the first year they went to the NCAA's in a long time (I can't remember exactly how long it had been), and the atmosphere in the Zips locker room was very similar. The guys all seemed overly excited to be at the Big Dance. Even though the Zips are the 13-seed and Gonzaga is the 4-seed (and GU is 12-and-a-half point favorite), Akron doesn't feel like it is the underdog. As Zips forward Jimmy Conyers told me...they want to come out throwing the first punch and they'll go from there.
With that said, they also realize it's a big task at hand. Here's what Akron head coach Keith Dambrot said about tomorrow's battle:
"I think the biggest thing we have to do is play hard. We're going to have to compete. We have to make shots to win the game. We have to defend like we've never defended."
That last sentence is the best, especially when you consider that the Zips are pretty good at defense to begin with (a lot of the Gonzaga players equate their defensive style to Wazzu). They've allowed just 59.8 points per game this year. I can't imagine they can do much better than that.
I don't anticipate the Bulldogs having any trouble tomorrow. The Zips are undersized (they only have one player taller than 6'9") and under skilled (they were just 23-12 overall and 10-6 in an unexciting Mid-American Conference). I'm not saying that to be mean...even the Zips players agree with me:
"It's always been our motto to play harder than the other team. Coach is always constantly reminding us that we're not very skilled or talented (laughter)," Akron guard Nate Linhart said. "We have to find other ways to win. Playing hard just goes hand in hand with that."
Tip-off is scheduled for 4:25pm tomorrow. It's a game that can be seen exclusively on KREM 2.
We'll have plenty of postgame coverage from Portland tomorrow night at ten and eleven. I'll also have live reports tomorrow morning and afternoon, so be sure to stay tuned to KREM 2 and KREM.com for the best Gonzaga coverage around.