Gonzaga Bulldogs vs. McNeese St. McNeese Pick & Prediction MARCH 21st 2024

The last time McNeese played in the NCAA Tournament, Gonzaga was in the early years of what has become one of the longest NCAA streaks in the country.

The Cowboys (30-3) are the 12th seed in the Midwest Region in their first appearance in 22 years as they prepare to face the fifth-seeded Bulldogss (25-7), who are making their 25th consecutive appearance, in the opening round Thursday in Salt Lake City.

Gonzaga’s appearance streak, which is third-longest in the country, appeared in jeopardy earlier in the season after the Zags fell out of the AP Top 25 for the first time in eight years.

“Everybody has a tendency to take (an NCAA bid) for granted,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “I get people running up to me in July that just can’t wait for March Madness. I’m like, ‘No, you’ve got to earn your way into that. You don’t just get it.'”

The Zags earned this bid by winning 15 of 16 games heading into the West Coast Conference tournament, where they defeated San Francisco before losing to top-seeded Saint Mary’s.

“Obviously there were times this year when it didn’t seem like it might happen,” Few said, “so hopefully that was kind of a good way to get us back to appreciating moments like this.”

Few said this year’s team was “under a lot of scrutiny” because its fall from the rankings was unexpected for a program that has made 13 trips to the Sweet 16, including six trips to the Elite Eight, two Final Fours and two championship-game appearances.

“They’re their own team and they had to embark on their own journey and they figured it out,” Few said. “We dug our heels in and give them credit.

“Now we’re back where we’re comfortable being and we’re used to this, but we’ve got to go out and play well. If you don’t play well, you’re done.”

The Cowboys aren’t used to the NCAA Tournament by any means, but first-year head coach Will Wade is.

He took VCU to the NCAA Tournament in both of his seasons there and guided LSU to three NCAA Tournaments in his five seasons. But he was fired by LSU after the 2021-22 season when an NCAA investigation determined that Wade provided improper benefits to recruits, leading to NCAA sanctions against Wade and the Tigers.

Wade didn’t coach last season and McNeese went looking for a new coach after finishing 11-23.

The Southland Conference regular-season and tournament champions have won 11 games in a row and lead the country in scoring margin (18.9).

“I don’t think of Gonzaga as a mid-major program anymore,” McNeese forward Christian Shumate said. “This is where we want to be as a program. It has been great, but if we want to be like them we have to win games like this.”

The winner of the first-ever meeting between Gonzaga and McNeese will play Saturday against the winner between No. 4 seed Kansas and No. 13 seed Samford.

“Growing up, I wanted to go to either Gonzaga or Kansas,” guard DJ Richards Jr. said. “Now I may get a chance to play both of them.”

–Field Level Media

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