Two programs ripe with tradition and NCAA tournament experience, Syracuse and Gonzaga, were both very close to not even making the big dance this season. The Bulldogs needed a WCC tournament championship against rival Saint Mary’s to clinch an automatic bid, while the Orange somehow squeezed into the field despite dropping five of their final six games. That doubt has fueled both teams so far in March Madness, as they have won their four tournament games by a combined 83 points.
No. 10 seed Syracuse dispatched of No. 7 seed Dayton in the first round, before sending Cinderella — No. 15 seed Middle Tennessee State — home early to ink a spot in the Sweet 16. Freshman Malachi Richardson (13.1 ppg) led the charge against the Flyers with 21 points, two shy of a career-high. In the obliteration of the Blue Raiders, senior Michael Gbinije (17.8 pointer per game) proved the be the catalyst that he has been all season, pouring in 23 points to go along with three steals. It’s been a roller coaster ride of a year for ‘Cuse, who were banned from postseason play last March and saw head coach Jim Boeheim suspended for the first nine games of the 2015-16 campaign. At this time of year, Hall of Fame coaches usually dot the bracket and make a trip to the Final Four, and it’s been Boeheim’s tutelage and vaunted 2-3 zone that has his team two wins from Houston.
The Zags, a one seed in 2013 and a two seed last season, have plenty of familiarity with big-time postseason basketball (18 straight NCAA tournament appearances) but have yet to reach a Final Four. However, they do have a player with Final Four experience in senior Kyle Wiltjer (20.4 points per game), who won a national title with Kentucky in 2012. Wiltjer and his frontcourt mate Domantas Sabonis (17.5 ppg, 11.7 rebounds per game) have been a two-man wrecking crew all season, and have combined for 60 points in Gonzaga’s wins over No. 6 seeded Seton Hall and No. 3 seed Utah. Seton Hall was arguably one of the hottest teams heading into the tournament, but Mark Few’s group used a smothering defense to shut down one of the premier scorers in the country in Isaiah Whitehead (10 points, 0-10 3pt FG). They rode that wave into round two, locking in on Utah’s big man and potential NBA lottery selection Jakob Poeltl, holding him to a measly five points and four rebounds. They will likely need to contain Michael Gbinije — and knock down a few threes over the zone — in order to take down Syracuse and advance to a third Elite Eight in school history.
Tipoff from the United Center in Chicago is set for 9:40 p.m. on CBS.