Salt Lake City — It felt a little bit ironic when Southern learned that its first round opponent in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament would be the Gonzaga Bulldogs.
Throughout the season, Jaguars coach Roman Banks referenced Gonzaga repeatedly as a blueprint for rebuilding the Southern program. Banks used the Bulldogs as inspiration in pregame speeches and practices, drawing on what they accomplished to give his players a better idea of how high Southern could ascend in becoming a competitive basketball program again.
Now the Jaguars get to measure themselves on the court against the same program that has served as their model when they take on the nation’s no. 1 ranked team in the second round Thursday.
“They are a true example of what we’re trying to do at Southern University,” Banks said. “Actually when you watch their program and how they play, we’re similar in many ways. They have bigger size, and quality players, but, you know, a lot of times as we are watching them and scouting them, we try to do some of the same things.”
Replicating what Gonzaga does on the court, while facing the Zags themselves, will be a tough task.
Containing Wooden Award finalist Kelly Olynyk is a nightmare for opposing defenses. The 7-foot center is averaging 17.3 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game. He is not the only low post threat either. Senior forward Elias Harris also makes his presence known around the basket with per game averages of 14.9 points and 7.4 rebounds.
Interior defense will be a major area of focus. Southern wants to limit the damage Olynyk and Harris can do around the paint. That means scrapping for every rebound and taking care of the ball to limit opportunities for them to make plays.
The good news for the Jaguars is that defense has been a strong point all season. Southern has allowed opponents to shoot just 36.5 percent from the field and score 57.1 points per game.
It will help the Jaguars stay in the game even if their preferred up-tempo style isn’t producing the number of baskets they need.
“We are comfortable with our style of play, but some nights the ball is not going to go in,” senior guard Jameel Grace said. “It’s not our offense that got us here. We play great defense as a team, and that’s just one thing (we do) from the start.”
Gonzaga has already embraced the idea that it will face a 40-minute battle with the Jaguars. Southern has held three of its past five opponents under 50 points and has allowed more than 68 points just four times this season.
“Nothing is going to come easy,” Olynyk said. “They’re a great defensive team. They dictate where they want you to shoot the ball instead of giving you free range to do what you want.”
Southern has made huge strides since a low APR score handcuffed the program before Banks took over. The Jaguars may fit the definition of underdog better than just about any team in the NCAA Tournament, but it doesn’t describe how Southern players see themselves.
Looking at Gonzaga, they know they can climb the mountain and become something much bigger than what they are now.
“Our coach told us 20 years ago Southern was among the top 25 and nobody knew what Gonzaga was,” senior guard Derrick Beltran said. “Tables are turned now, but we have tried to bring Southern back to where it used to be in the 80s and 90s.”