SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) – A high seed. An unheralded opponent.

A nearby venue likely packed with Gonzaga fans. These have been ingredients for past NCAA disappointments for Gonzaga.

As the Zags prepare to play the Akron Zips on Thursday in Portland, Ore. – in a showdown of high-value Scrabble letters – their goal will be to avoid a third consecutive first-round exit from the tournament.

“I’m hoping it changes this year,” junior guard Matt Bouldin said. “It wasn’t very fun the last two.”

Gonzaga’s ticket allotment to the Portland round sold out immediately, although a large contingent of fans are likely to make the 350-mile trip to try and buy tickets there.

“It will be like a home game for us, hopefully,” senior Micah Downs said.

Expectations for the Zags have been high all season, and they finished 10th in the final regular-season Associated Press poll.

Gonzaga (26-5) is seeded fourth in the South region and will play 13th-seeded Akron (23-12), winner of the Mid-American Conference tournament, at the Rose Garden. It’s the first time the teams have met on the basketball court.

This is Gonzaga’s 11th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, the nation’s fifth-longest streaks. Akron is appearing in the tournament for the second time and first since 1986.

Last March, the NCAA sent seventh-seeded Gonzaga to Raleigh, N.C., where the Zags were promptly bounced from the tournament by 10th-seeded Davidson. Two years ago, Gonzaga lost to Indiana in the first round in Sacramento. In 2004 the Zags were upset in the second round by Nevada in nearby Seattle. “I think the last few years we haven’t been playing good basketball leading into the tournament,” Bouldin said. “I think this year’s different.”

The Zags went through a midseason stumble when they lost four of five non-conference games. But they rolled through the West Coast Conference undefeated and won 18 of their last 19 games – the only loss being in Spokane to Memphis, a No. 2 seed in the tournament.

“We’re clicking on all cylinders right now,” Gonzaga center Josh Heytvelt said. “I don’t think we could be in a better spot.”

Their five losses this year are to Connecticut, Memphis, Utah, Arizona and Portland State, which all made the NCAAs. They beat tournament teams Oklahoma State, Maryland, and Tennessee twice, plus NIT-bound Washington State.

“It prepares us so much for what we’re running into right now,” point guard Jeremy Pargo said. “We’ve gotten the chances to play against great teams, and now if we get past that first game the teams will get even better.”

In Akron, the Zags face a defensive-minded team whose unusual nickname refers to zipper shoes invented by Akron’s B.F. Goodrich rubber company in the 1920s. Akron’s mascot is Zippy the kangaroo.

Gonzaga’s formal nickname is the Bulldogs, but many people just call them the Zags.

AP-ES-03-16-09 1717EDT

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