SPOKANE - The Gonzaga Bulldogs were the last team announced in the 68-team field for the NCAA basketball tournament, but Mark Few had no complaints.
“This is one year where I would have crawled on broken glass to Cleveland to play,” Few joked Sunday afternoon after learning that Gonzaga opens against 17th-ranked St. John’s on Thursday at the Pepsi Center in Denver.
“I couldn’t care less what our seed was, where we were playing, when we were playing, who we were playing.
“I’m ecstatic just to be in, because there were a lot of times this year it didn’t look that great.”
The Bulldogs (24-9) earned the No. 11 seed in the Southeast Region. St. John’s (21-11), coached by former UCLA coach Steve Lavin – Few’s good friend – is the No. 6 seed.
“St. John’s had a wonderful year,” Few said. “Lavs has done a remarkable job with them. They’ve accrued some phenomenal wins throughout the season.”
The Red Storm moved up from 13th to a third-place tie in the Big East in Lavin’s first year as coach. The 16-team Big East has 11 teams in the NCAA tournament, a record for any conference.
The Big East is known for physical play, and top teams like St. John’s have plenty of athleticism. The Red Storm has beaten four Top 10 teams and two other Top 25 teams, and St. John’s has a stash of long, athletic players who can create havoc with presses and zones.
“They’re fun to watch, just because of their style of play,” Gonzaga guard Steven Gray said.
“They’re a scrappy team,” Gonzaga center Robert Sacre said. “They have to be.
“They’re in the Big East, and it’s not easy. They’ve been successful in the Big East, so you’ve got to respect that.”
Sacre said the Big East “absolutely” is the best college league in the country, and Gray agrees.
“Their conference tournament is just a dogfight,” Gray said.
Few said freshman forward-center Sam Dower will resume practice today after he required surgery for a scratched retina. Dower was poked in the eye during the championship game of the West Coast Conference tournament last Monday.
The Red Storm is not as fortunate. Senior guard D.J. Kennedy, who led the team in steals and ranked second in assists and third in scoring, suffered a season-ending knee injury in a quarterfinal loss to Syracuse in the Big East tourney.
“He’s devastated with the realization that he’s not going to be able to participate in the NCAA tournament and the sport that he loves so much,” Lavin said.
Lavin still has plenty of talent at his disposal, starting with Dwight Hardy. The senior guard averages 18 points and made first-team All-Big East.
The Red Storm has split four games since putting together a six-game winning streak. The Bulldogs, who started the season 4-5, have won nine a row.
“We’re definitely playing our best basketball right now,” said Gray, a senior out of Bainbridge High School.
“I’m excited, man,” Sacre said. “It’s going to be a good thing (playing favored St. John’s).
“No one expects us to do anything this year. We’re just coming in, there’s no pressure. We’re just going to have a good time and have some fun.”
Thursday’s game will tip at approximately 6:45 p.m PDT.
Gray promises to be ready for Gonzaga’s 13th consecutive trip to the NCAA tourney, though he admits he was “a little disappointed” the Bulldogs did not draw Washington.
“I think that would have been a fitting way (to end) my senior season,” he said.