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March Madness brings an early showdown of power programs: Gonzaga vs Kansas

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Gonzaga is fresh. The Bulldogs cruised to a stress-free victory in the first round of the NCAA Tournament that ended with the starters watching garbage time from the bench.

Kansas is fragile. The Jayhawks were missing their top scorer and had to fight to the finish for a first-round win with a depleted roster.

It comes as no surprise that the No. 5 Zags head into Saturday's second-round matchup of power programs as a 4 1/2-point favorite despite being one notch below No. 4 Kansas on the seeding line.

It also comes as no surprise that neither Zags coach Mark Few nor his counterpart from Kansas, Bill Self, are buying into any of the above assumptions.

“We've won the exact same amount of games in a row as Gonzaga has,” Self said. “So I'll just spin it like that.”

This is only the third meeting between these programs, whose coaches, strangely enough, share the same birthday: Dec. 27, 1962.

It is the sort of matchup hoops fans might have expected at the Midwest Regional next week, or even at the Final Four in Phoenix come April. That it's coming on the first weekend in Salt Lake City is a product of two teams that have been on shaky footing at times this season and were rated that way by the selection committee.

“You lose a game, the sky is falling,” Few said of the attitude at places like his, or at Kansas. “We lost more than one. So (both teams have) had to power through that.”

Yes, the Zags were considered a bubble team as late as January, as they struggled to adjust to the loss of four of their top five scorers from last season, including Drew Timme and Julian Strawther.

Asked when he saw the lightbulb go on, Few said it was more of a gradual climb.

“Putting Ben (Gregg) in the starting lineup, playing the three bigs together, it took us a while to adjust to that," Few said of a lineup change he made on Jan. 18. "Once we did, we kind of ran with it.”

Gonzaga is 15-2 since then, its only two losses coming to WCC rival Saint Mary's. A win Saturday would place the program in the Sweet 16 for the ninth straight time.

Meanwhile, Kansas was the AP preseason No. 1, with a roster stocked with Kevin McCullar Jr. and second-team All-American center Hunter Dickinson, who transferred to Lawrence from Michigan for this season.

Missing, though, has been a consistent outside shooter. When injuries to McCullar and Dickinson kicked in last month, the Jayhawks lost four of five. They took a 22-point lead in their tournament opener against Samford, only to wear down and barely hang on.

“We saw the ball go in the basket,” said Self, whose team shot 60%. “And if you looked at when we haven’t played well, we didn’t see the ball go in the basket. So I’m going to say ‘Yeah, I think last night was really good for us.’”

One other factor: The game starts at 1:15 p.m. local time. Kansas didn't walk out of the arena until after midnight Friday.

“We had to extend all the energy we had to win the game, then after a late night, we’re going to prepare for a team that’s terrific," Self said. “And we’ll have a 20-minute walk-through because we’ve got to keep our guys off their feet.”

NO-FLY ZONE

Oregon may have discovered its secret weapon in the NCAA Tournament – and she’s 74 years old.

On Thursday, Jermaine Couisnard scored 40 points in the Ducks’ first-round win over South Carolina, a performance against his former school that came with his grandma, Claudette Jackson, in the stands for the first time to see him play in college.

Couisnard has a close relationship with Jackson – they talk after every game – but she hasn’t been able to see him play in person because of a phobia.

“She don’t like flying,” said Couisnard, the first player from a double-digit seed to score 40 since Stephen Curry did it for Davidson in 2008.

So Jackson made the 6 1/2-hour drive with family members from East Chicago, Indiana, to Pittsburgh for Oregon’s opener.

It was something of a surprise for Couisnard, who wasn’t positive she would be on hand.

“I put her on my ticket list just in case,” he said. “I kind of heard her when I was warming up, but I was so locked in, I didn’t really pay attention. So after the game I was able to sit down and talk to her. So that was kind of cool.”

She stayed in town and will be at Saturday’s game against third-seeded Creighton, a fact that delighted Ducks coach Dana Altman, who joked that he could have made earlier travel arrangements for Jackson.

“She doesn’t like to fly, and if I’d have known that, we’d have the bus pick her up in Chicago and drive her all the way to Eugene,” said Altman, who, like Couisnard, will be facing his former school in Creighton. “I did meet her last night and grandma had a big smile.”

FAMILIAR FACES

When the tournament brackets were about to be released, Rick Barnes quietly wondered to himself: Is it going to be Texas or Clemson?

Barnes had a feeling the NCAA would pit him against one of the two programs he’s previously coached at and, sure enough, he was right. Barnes’ second-seeded Volunteers will face No. 7 seed Texas in the second round in Charlotte.

“I don’t know if they do that intentionally,” said Barnes, who coached 17 seasons at Texas before leaving for Knoxville in 2015. “But it’s always tough playing people you know.”

Texas coach Rodney Terry worked as an assistant coach under Barnes for nine seasons at Texas from 2002-11 before taking his first head coaching gig at Fresno State. He returned to Texas two years ago as an assistant before being promoted to head coach.

“In all honesty, do you want to match up with your friends?” Barnes said. “I don’t look forward to it, but we all know we have a job to do. When we toss it up, we’re going to try to do what we do and that’s try to win a basketball game.”

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AP Sports Writers Tom Withers and Steve Reed contributed.

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness