Top-ranked Gonzaga has reached the level where merely reaching the Final Four might not be considered a good enough NCAA Tournament run.
The Bulldogs begin dealing with the expectations as well as pursuing the school’s first NCAA championship when they face 16th-seeded Norfolk State (17-7) in West region play Saturday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
The Spartans advanced with a 54-53 win over Appalachian State in Thursday night’s First Four matchup. Norfolk State has won seven straight games and nine of 10.
As for Gonzaga (26-0), it is the first school to enter the tournament with an unbeaten record since Kentucky (34-0) in 2015. Those Wildcats — who had Karl-Anthony Towns and Devin Booker — lost to Wisconsin in the Final Four.
The Bulldogs are led by the star trio of Corey Kispert, Jalen Suggs and Drew Timme and have won 30 consecutive games. The last 23 of those wins are by double digits.
But coach Mark Few is doing all he can to temper expectations.
“It started in November like it was national championship or bust,” Few told ESPN. “And I just think that misses the whole point.
“Other than like Tom Brady and (Bill) Belichick and LeBron (James), I’m not sure anybody else is worthy of having those type of expectations put on them.”
The New England Patriots did their share of winning, as do whichever NBA teams employ James. Meanwhile, the Zags have reached the title game once — when they lost 71-65 to North Carolina in 2017.
This year is viewed as their best chance to win it all. Adding to that belief is the fact they beat the second, third and fourth seeds in their region by a combined 46 points. All three games were played on neutral courts.
Gonzaga beat second-seeded Iowa 99-88 on Dec. 19, knocked off third-seeded Kansas 102-90 in its season opener on Nov. 26, and routed fourth-seeded Virginia 98-75 on Dec. 26.
Suggs can sense the national-title-or-bust feeling.
“It gives you something really high to chase, and it’s one of the reasons why I came here, because I know everyone’s hungry for a national championship,” Suggs said.
Suggs averages 14.3 points, 4.5 assists and leads the squad with 47 steals. Kispert, a first-team All-American, averages 19.2 points and has made a team-leading 72 3-point baskets, while Timme contributes 18.7 points and a team-leading 7.1 rebounds.
Gonzaga leads the nation in scoring average (92.1), so Norfolk State can expect a faster pace than what was on display in its win over Appalachian State.
Jalen Hawkins came off the bench to score a career-high 24 points as the Spartans improved to 2-1 all-time in NCAA Tournament play. The other win came as a No. 15 seed when the school notched a shocking upset of second-seeded Missouri in 2012.
“We know Gonzaga is like the Lakers of college basketball with three All-Americans,” Spartans coach Robert Jones said afterward. “We understand the task at hand, and it is going to be a tough task.”
Norfolk State held a 16-point halftime lead, but Appalachian State went on a 26-4 run to move ahead by six with 5:48 left. But the Spartans recovered to close the game with a 9-2 run.
“We were panicking a little bit,” said Hawkins, who scored 20 first-half points. “We weren’t expecting them to come back so fast. But our coach told us to stay positive and play defense, and that’s what we strive on.”
Devante Carter, who averages a team-best 15 points, made the decisive two free throws with 8.6 seconds left for Norfolk State. But Carter had just four points on 1-of-10 shooting from the field.