Tiny Gonzaga is confident

Murali Balaji

Gonzaga basketball coach Dan Monson and his team, fresh off a 25-6 season and a West Coast Conference title, watched impatiently Sunday afternoon as the brackets for the NCAA tournament were announced.
“It’s kind of funny because we were an automatic bid and we were still nervous,” Monson said. “We were left out of the tournament last year and I had to keep reassuring our team that we were in.”
Monson’s worst fears were laid to rest at approximately 3:43 PST, when the 10th-seeded Bulldogs were paired up against the Gophers. While Gonzaga — a small Jesuit school approximately six hours outside of Seattle — crossed its fingers and counted its blessings at its selection, Gophers coach Clem Haskins hardly broke a sweat.
“I was confident all along we’d be there,” Haskins said calmly after the selections were announced. “We’re definitely one of the top 64 teams in the country, and we’ll be able to represent the University of Minnesota once again in the field of 64.”
For Haskins and his players, the weeks of lobbying their case to the national media made it almost inconceivable that they might be left out. Even though the West Regional bracket was the last to be announced, guard Kevin Nathaniel said the team’s confidence relieved the pressure of speculating on their postseason fate.
“No, I wasn’t worried,” guard Kevin Nathaniel said. “Coach (Haskins) pretty much instilled in us that we’d be in the tournament.”
Nathaniel and backcourt mate Kevin Clark will make their first appearance in one of the most glamorous postseason events in all of sports. Clark, last season’s NIT tournament MVP, wasn’t fazed about playing in front of national cameras and a prime-time audience.
“Last year, in the NIT, teams were focusing on Sam (Jacobson), Quincy (Lewis) and Eric (Harris),” he said. “This is my first NCAA tournament, but since it will also be my last, I know what I have to do to help this team go as far as we can.”
Selection Sundays are nothing new to Lewis, who made it to the Final Four in 1997 as a lanky sophomore dubbed “Instant Offense.” Now regarded as one of the most potent scorers in country, the 6-foot-7 senior put his feelings about postseason play in perspective.
“You know, we’ve been here before, and we know what we need to do to win,” Lewis said. “I think for our younger players it’s going to be real important. They have to know how important it is to be in this position.”
Despite the fact that Minnesota is seeded higher than Gonzaga, the Bulldogs are entering the tournament with the same quiet confidence — and veritable home-court advantage — that Illinois had during its surprising run to the final of the Big Ten tournament.
Monson says the fact that his team isn’t playing too far from home could work to Gonzaga’s advantage.
“It’s a good reward for our players from the Seattle area to go home and play in front of their friends and relatives,” he said. “For us, Seattle isn’t home, but it’s as good as homecourt in the NCAA tournament.”