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South Dakota State Jackrabbits vs. Gonzaga Bulldogs: NCAA Tournament First Round Preview and Prediction

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Gonzaga has graduated from lovable underdog to national title contender. The Bulldogs have reached their 19th consecutive NCAA Tournament with their deepest and most talented team to date. Skeptics will argue that Gonzaga is too much of a postseason underachiever to actually reach the Final Four. Still, the idea that the Bulldogs are Final Four material is no fluke.

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The Bulldogs (32-1) are a force to be reckoned with on both ends of the court. They are outscoring opponents by 23.4 points per game this season while averaging 51.8 percent shooting from the field. Defensively, they rank second nationally in points-per-possession allowed and limit opposing teams to 36.8 percent shooting. Once Gonzaga gets into a rhythm, games quickly turn into blowouts.

South Dakota State has drawn the near impossible task of slowing down the West Region's top seed. The Jackrabbits (18-16) locked in their second straight NCAA bid by winning six straight and nine of their last 11 games – culminating in a 79-77 victory over Nebraska-Omaha to clinch the Summit League Tournament title. Last season, South Dakota State gave Maryland a scare as a No. 12 seed before falling 79-74 to the Terrapins.

West Region: No. 16 South Dakota State Jackrabbits (18-16) vs. No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs (32-1)

When: 2 p.m. ET (Thursday)

Where: Vivint Smart Home Arena (Salt Lake City)

TV: TBS

Line: Gonzaga -23

Keys for South Dakota State

The Jackrabbits need to be able to hit outside shots early to loosen things up around the paint. South Dakota State's has five players who are shooting 37 percent or better from the perimeter this season. Getting those long-distance baskets will be critical.

Getting a huge game from Mike Daum also will be critical. The sophomore forward ranks second in the nation in scoring. Daum averages 25.3 points per game while shooting 51.6 percent from the field and 41.6 percent from the perimeter. He also is South Dakota State's most reliable free throw shooter, averaging 87.1 percent from the line.

Daum can't do it alone if South Dakota State hopes to achieve a historic upset. Only one other player on the Jackrabbits' roster averages double figures in scoring. If one or two others can't step up, nothing will prevent Gonzaga from zeroing in on Daum and shutting him down for 40 minutes.

Keys for Gonzaga

Feeding the ball into the post needs to be an early priority for Gonzaga. The Bulldogs have a definite size advantage over South Dakota State. No player on the Jackrabbits roster is taller than 6-foot-9. It should create a mismatch which Gonzaga can easily exploit with centers Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins. Karnowski is 7-foot-1 while Collins is 7-foot tall.

Both players can do significant damage around the rim for Gonzaga. Karnowski is the team's No. 2 scorer (12.6 ppg) and rebounder (6.0 rpg). Collins leads the team in blocks (1.6 bpg) and also is a reliable scorer (10.2 ppg) and rebounder (5.7 rpg).

Their presence will open things up for leading scorer Nigel Williams-Goss to find an early rhythm. Williams-Goss has shined since transferring to Spokane from Washington. The junior guard averages 16.9 points and 4.8 assists per game for the Bulldogs.

Final Analysis

A No. 16 seed has ever beaten a No. 1 seed since the NCAA Tournament expanded to a 64-team field in 1985. Such an upset could happen one day, but it isn't likely to be this game where history is made. Gonzaga presents too many interior mismatches for South Dakota State and the Jackrabbits’ tendency to rely on one player to propel their offense is a recipe for disaster against a tough Bulldogs defense.

Prediction: Gonzaga 89, South Dakota State 65

— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.