SPOKANE – Mark Few can’t lie: He’d rather be playing in Spokane than Buffalo this weekend.
Alas, the NCAA basketball gods deemed it best to send Few’s Gonzaga Bulldogs about 1,900 miles east instead of about two miles west for the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Mind you, Few isn’t complaining. After pairings were announced Sunday afternoon, Few described Gonzaga’s 12th consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament as “a gift,” “a blessing” and “quite an accomplishment,” even though the Bulldogs won’t be one of the eight teams playing near Gonzaga’s campus in the Spokane Arena this weekend.
The Bulldogs (26-6) were seeded eighth in the West Region and sent to Buffalo for a Friday showdown with ninth-seeded Florida State (22-9). Channel 7 will televise the game from 19,200-seat HSBC Arena at 4:10 p.m.
“Obviously, they (tournament selection committee members) didn’t want us in Spokane,” Few said. “I’m not sure why we weren’t in San Jose. They’ve got so much on their plate.”
Few has shocked plenty of observers by taking his young team to the tournament one year after losing four starters off a Sweet 16 squad. The 18th-ranked Bulldogs will probably have to pull off a huge shocker in Buffalo to return to the Sweet 16 this year, because the Gonzaga-Florida State winner figures to face third-ranked Syracuse (28-4), the No. 1 seed in the West, on Sunday.
First, the Bulldogs must beat a Florida State team that appears to be significantly better than the 16th-seeded Vermont (25-9) club that Syracuse faces Friday. (Syracuse is just 150 miles east of Buffalo on Interstate 90.)
The unranked Seminoles, who finished third in the rugged Atlantic Coast Conference, rank among the nation’s best teams in field-goal shooting percentage defense (37.4), points allowed (60.2 per game) and blocked shots (6.3).
“They can really, really defend,” Few said. “Probably one of the better defensive teams in the country. Really athletic.
“They’ve got a great big man in Solomon Alabi and a good wing in (Chris) Singleton.”
Alabi, a 7-foot-1, 251-pound sophomore center from Nigeria, leads the Seminoles with 11.6 points and 2.4 blocked shots per game. He averages 6.2 rebounds, which is second on the team behind the 7.1 rebounds of Singleton, a 6-9, 227-pound sophomore who averages 10.3 points.
Unlike Gonzaga, the Seminoles prefer a slower, grinding style of play. Alabi and Singleton are the only FSU players averaging more than 8.8 points.
The Seminoles score 68.5 points per game. The Bulldogs average 77.6, and their field-goal shooting percentage of 49.4 ranks near the top nationally.
Gonzaga and Florida State have never faced one another in basketball, but they have two common opponents this season. Both teams lost badly to powerful Duke. Florida State beat visiting Wake Forest, 51-47, and Gonzaga lost at home to the Demon Deacons, 77-75.
Florida State has more size than Gonzaga, but the Seminoles rank toward the bottom nationally with 16.7 turnovers per game. Like Gonzaga, Florida State ranks well down the list in free-throw shooting.
The Seminoles have only two seniors, one of them a starter. They have a 2-2 record in the past four games, including a loss in their opening game at the ACC tournament. Florida State is making its 12th appearance in the NCAA tournament (one fewer than Gonzaga) and lost to Wisconsin in the first round last year in Boise.
Alabi and Singleton are the only All-ACC players on Florida State, and they made the third team. Singleton is the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, and Alabi joined Singleton on the all-defensive team.
“They’re going to be a very physical team, so we’ve got to bring our hard hats,” said Gonzaga center Robert Sacre, a 7-foot, 247-pound sophomore.
“They’re big and athletic,” Gonzaga junior guard Steven Gray said. “Coming from the ACC, you know they’re going to be a tough, battle-tested team.”
The Bulldogs, regular-season champions of the West Coast Conference, hurt their seeding prospects when they were belted by unranked Saint Mary’s in the WCC tournament title game, 81-62.
“My thought on the seeding was, if you weren’t a 1 or 2, get your game on, because everywhere else there’s some really, really good teams,” Few said.
The Zags’ first round opponent
FLORIDA STATE Seminoles (22-9)
School location: Tallahassee, Fla. Conference: Atlantic Coast Conference.
Coach: Leonard Hamilton.
How they got that nickname: Florida State adopted the nickname Seminoles in 1947, when the school became co-ed and was no longer the Florida State College of Women, in honor of a respected tribe of American Indians.
32Solomon AlabiC7-1So.11.6 points per game
31Chris SingletonF6-9So.7.1 rebounds per game
21Ryan ReidF6-8Sr.51.6 FG pct.
22Derwin KitchenG6-4Jr.3.7 assists per game
21Michael SnaerG6-5Fr.8.8 ppg
No.Key subsPos.HeightClassKey stat
4Deividas DulkysG6-5So.8.5 ppg
1Xavier GibsonF-C6-11So.5.7 ppg
3Luke LoucksG6-5So.4.3 ppg
Howie Stalwick, contributing writer