ANAHEIM, Calif. — The path to Gonzaga's first national championship in program history could be littered with rematches. North Carolina or Tennessee in the title game and Duke in the national semifinals. Before it can think about those reruns, though, it must first turn its gaze toward Florida State.
Just over a year ago, in last season's Sweet 16, the Seminoles roared past GU 75-60. Their size and length flummoxed the Zags into 33.9 percent shooting from the floor and 25 percent shooting beyond the arc.
But that was last year's Bulldogs, a team missing its sweet-shooting big man, Killian Tillie, due to a right hip injury. A team without Geno Crandall's steady ball-handling and hounding perimeter defense. A team absent Brandon Clarke's turbocharged, two-way dominance.
Watching from a Staples Center bench in Los Angeles that March 22 evening, Tillie twiddled the zipper on the black Nike hoodie pulled above his lips, a sense of helplessness staining his demeanor.
"I was sad about that last year. But I've bounced back from it well, played hard, and I'm excited for this game," Tillie said. "We didn't show them the real Gonzaga last year. It's going to be a very different team this year."
When the ninth-seeded Seminoles snuck past top-seeded Xavier 75-70 last season, thoughts of a GU return to the Final Four swirled in the minds of optimistic Zag fans. No. 2 North Carolina was ousted a round earlier by seventh-seeded Texas A&M. The only remaining higher seed in the West was No. 3 Michigan.
Then, Tillie was pulled from the starting lineup shortly before tipoff against Florida State. Despite quiet games in the first two rounds — scoring a combined nine points — he was only weeks removed from winning Most Outstanding Player of the West Coast Conference Tournament. It was a glimpse into what the 6-foot-10 big man could be: 24 points per game on 77.8 percent shooting, including 13 of 14 from deep.
That potential was yanked out from under GU and it couldn't recalibrate to establish an identity without him.
"I think we didn't play at our place," Zach Norvell Jr. said. "Leading up to that game, we were playing with a much better pace, really aggressive. They dictated the flow of the game, both on the defensive and offensive end."
Norvell said GU will have to find a balance between respecting Florida State's rim protection by spreading the ball around the perimeter while not completely ignoring dribble-drive action. Force those big dudes out of the paint and lean on the talents that bred the nation's No. 1 offense, according to KenPom.
"I think we've got a team that's built to handle some of the physicality that we're going to see, maybe a little better than last year. We've got guys whose bodies are a year older and more mature," Crandall said. "We've seen that similar style of play with Baylor and these guys have seen it last year, so they know exactly what they're going to get out of the game on Thursday. It's been able to prepare us a little bit better for hopefully coming out on top."
Rarely in program history have expectations been higher for a GU team. It is 32-3. It's spent numerous weeks ranked atop the AP Poll. It could lose as many as seven players to graduation or the NBA this year.
Florida State is not the monkey on head coach Mark Few's back that a Final Four appearance was prior to 2017. Not even close. But last season was cut short at the hands of these Seminoles, which return 13 players from that team.
Before the Zags can eye a season sweep over Duke or knot the series at one with North Carolina or Tennessee, it must look back to one year ago and offer a counterpunch to the knockout Florida State dealt them.
"A lot of guys here are talking about that [loss] and wanting revenge," Crandall said. "Guys that aren't here anymore texted us and let us know [how] they feel about the game coming up. It's definitely in the atmosphere and in the air."