By Peter Tormey
SALT LAKE CITY – The Gonzaga University Bulldogs awoke to several inches of snow this morning, after flying in Tuesday, and it may have felt somewhat like home in Spokane to them, where it has snowed this week as well. By mid-afternoon, the snow had melted in the Salt Lake City sunshine and the city came alive with action in and around the NCAA Tournament first- and second-round games that begin tomorrow (Thursday).
Gonzaga takes on fellow Jesuit school Xavier University of Cincinnati at 4:20 p.m. PST. The winner earns the right to advance to the Saturday game against the winner of the Indiana vs. San Diego State game.
Among the key landmarks downtown is the Mormon Church’s Salt Lake Temple, which soars into the skyscape and is crowned by the 12-foot, cast bronze gilded statue of the Angel Moroni by Cyrus Dallin (1891). Moroni, a book of Mormon prophet, is believed by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to have returned to earth as a resurrected being and prepared the faith’s founder, Joseph Smith, to receive and translate the gold plates.
One can’t help but admire the efficiency of the seemingly omnipresent UTA (Utah Transit Authority) Trax Light Rail, which debuted with the opening of its 15-mile Sandy-to-Salt Lake Line. Two years later, the UTA opened its 2.5-mile University Line, which links downtown with the University of Utah where the NCAA Tournament is being held in the Huntsman Center.
Gonzaga fans, however, would likely be equally impressed to find one street in particular, 300 South, alternatively named John Stockton Drive. The streets here are named by virtue of their proximity to the Salt Lake Temple, the world headquarters for the Mormon Church. Stockton is a beloved figure and household name here as the former Zag and future NBA Hall of Famer played his entire career with the Utah Jazz before moving back to Spokane, where he was raised.
Early this afternoon at the team hotel, the name of which is being kept under wraps to ensure the players have peace and quiet to focus, all was remarkably quiet.
“That’s just the way that we like it,” said Chris Standiford, an associate director of athletics for the Zags. Before their scheduled late afternoon press conference and shoot-around at the Huntsman Center, the Bulldogs worked on some game strategy at an alternate site, reportedly a Utah Jazz facility, away from the glare of the media.
Later, at the Huntsman Center, Player of the Year candidate Bulldog junior forward Adam Morrison, the nation’s leading scorer, said the team is raring to go tomorrow. Asked how important it is that the Bulldogs get past the second round of the tournament this year, Morrison replied, “very important,” adding that the Zags are “focused and ready” for the Musketeers.
“They are a very good team and we’ll do our best to take care of them,” the Spokane native and Mead High School graduate said, adding that in his view rebounding will be critical.
“The biggest key for this game is the glass,” he said. The single striking difference from his two previous trips to the tournament, Morrison said, is that media prognosticators this year are predicting an early exit for the No. 3-seeded Zags. One could gather from the way he said it that Morrison is drawing some motivation from that fact.
“I think it’s a really good time for our team,” he said. “Once the ball is thrown in the air, no one knows what seed you are.”
Six-foot-9 senior center/forward J.P. Batista, who is averaging 19.3 points and 9.5 rebounds per game this season in all games, said the thigh that he bruised in the West Coast Conference Tournament is feeling the best it has since before the injury.
“We had practice this morning and today was my best day,” the big guy from Brazil said. Asked to assign a percentage score to his leg, Batista said 90 percent well.
Morrison, who has been besieged by media all season since the Maui Invitational at the beginning of the year, was asked if that attention has been a distraction.
“Obviously, this season has been very fun,” he said, then pointing to Batista said he can’t understand why J.P. has not drawn more media interest to date. Morrison said the Gonzaga team philosophy has always been to put the team first, above individuals, and that the most important thing to him is to win, even if he scores fewer points.
“At Gonzaga, we are a team and we are a team first,” he said. “I wish our guys would get a little bit more exposure.”
Asked about Xavier’s star defender Justin Cage, who will guard him, Morrison said he has great respect for Cage but that it doesn’t matter who guards him.
“I expect him tomorrow night to come out and play hard,” Morrison said, “but it’s not Justin Cage versus me or me versus Justin Cage. It’s Gonzaga versus Xavier and it means that if I score only 15 points that’s fine if we win.”
Asked if he minded that Morrison was receiving so much media attention, Batista said he felt quite the contrary.
“I’m happy for him. I think it’s great, because all you guys make me nervous,” Batista said. “Whatever he says (turning to Morrison), I agree with him.”
Morrison, who is sporting a moustache for the first time, was asked if the ’stache that has become an American sports icon could not benefit from a few vitamins to thicken it up.
“I’ve always wanted to have facial hair and this is the first thing I’ve grown. I’ll go with what I can get right now,” he said, explaining he will not take vitamins to thicken the upper-lip hair. “I am from Spokane, so a moustache is alright.”
During his turn with the media, Zags Coach Mark Few called Xavier forward Justin Cage “one heck of a defender. He’s a guy who takes a lot of pride in that. He’s strong, he’s athletic and he’s long. I don’t know if we’re really keying on an individual match-up. It’s a team game and you have to take what they give you. Adam has been pretty good about taking what the other teams give him or us.”
On Zags’ junior guard Derek Raivio’s impact in this upcoming game, Few said Raivio makes significant positive contributions to the team in ways that are not always noticed.
“On offense, he very rarely turns the ball over. Obviously, he hasn’t shot the ball this year as well as he has in years past, but he is more than capable of breaking out at any time and we are kind of looking for him to do so.”
Few reiterated his statement that Xavier, in his view, is a far better team than the No. 14 seed it has been assigned by the NCAA Selection Committee. Few said his studies of Xavier game film have only convinced him further of that point.
Still, Few said, the Bulldogs are “hungry,” ready to play and that he has reinforced in them just how remarkable an accomplishment the players have had to win 27 games, sweep through the West Coast Conference season and its tournament without a loss.
“These guys have had a great season with 27 wins,” Few said. “They have been great and now they can do something really special.”