Monday March 23rd, 2015

Before they could worry about making the school's first trip to the Final Four, the Gonzaga Bulldogs first needed to get out of the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament. Despite entering this year's Big Dance as the No. 2 seed in the South Regional, the Zags were hardly a lock to make it to the Sweet 16 in Houston, given that they had lost five consecutive years in the Round of 32, including in 2013 as a No. 1 seed.

But in an 87-68 rout of Iowa on Sunday in Seattle, Gonzaga not only advanced to the Sweet 16, but also left little doubt as to its worthiness as a Final Four contender. The Bulldogs jumped on the seventh-seeded Hawkeyes early and shot 62% in the first half en route to a 17-point lead at intermission. Iowa got no closer than 11 in the second half, at which point the Zags responded with a 9-0 run, capped by a three-pointer from senior point guard Kevin Pangos, for a 20-point edge.

Gonzaga's Final Four chances are often downgraded because it doesn't play in a tougher conference, and the Bulldogs did indeed roll through the West Coast Conference again, going 17-1 and winning the league's tournament title. A tougher-than-expected 86-76 win over No. 15 seed North Dakota State on Friday didn't change that perception. But Sunday, in their first game against a Power Five conference team since ending a three-game swing with Pac-12 teams Arizona (a three-point loss in overtime), Washington State (a 15-point win) and UCLA (a 13-point win) in mid-December, the Zags proved that they are a serious Final Four threat, regardless of what league they come from.

Kyle Wiltjer, who has actually played in the Final Four—he was a freshman reserve on Kentucky's national championship squad before transferring to Gonzaga after the 2012-13 season—led the way, scoring 24 points on 10-of-12 shooting. Wiltjer also made 4 of 6 from three-point range, as the Bulldogs drained 10 of 16 from outside overall. Freshman forward Domantas Sabonis had 18 points and nine rebounds off the bench, while Pangos chipped in 16 points. For the Hawkeyes, Jarrod Uthoff scored 20 points and Aaron White added 19.

The Zags have reached the NCAA tournament 17 straight years, but this is just their sixth berth in the Sweet 16 in that time. They have only made it to the Elite Eight once, losing to eventual champion Connecticut by five. They'll get a chance to go back to that round—which would be the first such visit for head coach Mark Few—when they take on No. 11 seed UCLA in Houston on Friday.

Gonzaga improved to 34-2, while Iowa's season ends at 22-12. 

2:59 | College Basketball
Return to Glory: Kyle Wiltjer

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