HOUSTON — Gonzaga Coach Mark Few cautioned his players about releasing locker room intelligence to the public earlier this week, a measure taken after star forward Kyle Wiltjer had posted a video of Few doing a handstand on Twitter following last weekend’s third round win over Iowa. His team went ballistic with excitement. He whipped his head and chanted with his players, eventually telling them: “We ain’t done yet fellas!”
He was right, as Gonzaga beat UCLA in the South Region semifinals on Friday night, but the celebration was likely to be much more reserved. The team would revel in the bus ride home, he said, because even after 17 consecutive years of coming to the NCAA tournament, receiving a police escort never get old.
But it will be over before they know it, and then reality will begin to set in as the staff sits down to prepare for Duke, which grinded out a 63-57 win over Utah in nightcap on Friday. The staff will likely stay up in to the wee hours of the night to watch film, and if they watch the footage from the Blue Devils’ latest victory, they’ll likely see a resemblance of themselves. Duke is having plenty of fun too, on their way to a second Elite Eight in three years.
On Friday, Duke was more animated than any other point this season – even Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski was punching the air in the second half, pumping his fist after Duke took control.
“Everyone was jumping up and down, screaming and yelling,” said Duke forward Amile Jefferson. “Right now it’s what we’re going to do to together, and I think that makes us feel more confident.”
Both teams had to win in unconventional ways Friday night. Gonzaga struggled offensively against the Bruins but rode a dazzling performance from 7-foot- center Przemek Karnowski. Duke was forced to make maneuvers offensively, too, as Utah sent waves of double teams at star freshman center Jahlil Okafor (he finished with six points and eight rebounds). But the Blue Devils were suffocating defensively and received a double-double from Houston native Justise Winslow, who just a day after celebrating his 19th birthday, finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds and hit crucial shots in crucial moments.
Sunday\’s matchup will present unique challenges for both teams, and as Friday proved, a wealth of talent on the block. Okafor never looked frustrated in receiving standard double teams on Friday night, remaining patient and quietly skipping passes across the court to set up his teammates (freshman Tyus Jones had 15 points and senior guard Quinn Cook had 11). Karnowski also received double teams at times – Gonzaga star forward Kyle Wiltjer had just eight points (about 11 below his average) and Gonzaga shot just 3-of-19 from three-point range, but much like Duke did a few hours later, it found a way to adapt.
“We’re ready, focused, and locked in. The guys are locked in. We’re not satisfied with getting to the Elite Eight. We really wanted to be here and it is definitely an honor … we’ve been to the eight and watched Louisville celebrate,” said senior guard Quinn Cook, referring to the team’s last trip to the region finals two years ago. “How joyous that was and how hurt we were. We have our hands full against Gonzaga.”
Cook noted that Gonzaga would know the feeling too, although at much different level. The Bulldogs are making their first Elite Eight appearance since 1999, and also it’s first under Few. It has been to 17 straight NCAA Tournaments (16 under Few), and while Sunday will present an opportunity at a breakthrough to a first appearance in the Final Four – but to also transcends a plateau over the past five years, all of which ended with Gonzaga losing in the Round of 32.
“They know,” Few said, “it’s the one accomplishment we haven’t done, you know, go to the Final Four, and now we finally have the opportunity to do that.”
Krzyzewski noted that it will be a game of contrasting experiences – Gonzaga has upperclassmen on its team, while Duke relies on an eight-man rotation that is heavily influence by the play of three freshmen in Okafor, Jones, and Winslow.
\”They\’re still freshmen. You need to recognize that they\’re young … the guys that we\’re playing against on Sunday are probably 22, 23,\” Krzyzewski said. \”Hopefully we\’ve gotten enough experience to play huge in that game on Sunday.\”