Bouldin's transformation keys Gonzaga

PORTLAND, Ore. -- It's hard not to notice the hair first. It suggests that a character lies beneath its thick brown tangle, and because Matt Bouldin plays for Gonzaga, it's difficult to keep Adam Morrison's "mustache" from oozing into the mind's eye.

Oh, please, make that image go away.

Yet while Morrison's porn star mustache emerged from an ironic place inside the former All-American's swirling brain, Bouldin's hair just is. It seems more than likely that he favors it because a gaggle of comely coeds through the years have told him it looks cute.

"I haven't heard one announcer not talk about my hair," the junior guard and two-time Colorado state high school player of the year said. "It gets a little old, but whatever. It's nice to be recognized. We've been talking about if we go to a Final Four, I'll buzz it. But it's hard to get rid of it."

That's about as edgy as the mellow Bouldin gets, particularly on the occasion of leading the fourth-seeded Zags (28-5) back to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005-06. They'll square off with top-seeded North Carolina in Memphis on Friday.

In the thrilling Round 2 win over Western Kentucky, Bouldin played the all-around game that became his hallmark over the second half of the season. He contributed 20 points, grabbed eight rebounds and handed out six assists -- each total a team-high.

That's a "committed" and "fully invested" performance. And if you're wondering why those two terms have quotation marks around them, it's because Mark Few used them in a lengthy conversation in early January in which the Gonzaga coach told Bouldin those qualities were missing from his game.

The Zags, after a strong start, had just dropped three of four, including consecutive games to Portland State and Utah. Few, who can do grumpy with the best of them, was perturbed.

"I wanted him to just be more accountable," Few said. "He was playing. But I didn't feel like he was … playing. His performance made a difference whether we won or lost, so I wanted him to be accountable for whether we won or lost."

If that charge sounds nuanced, it is. This wasn't as simple as "be more aggressive." After a Few minutes, it's clear the coach wanted Bouldin to take over a game with the Zen-like effortlessness of, say, a John Stockton.

Hey, and the neat thing about Gonzaga is that Stockton's considerable basketball IQ is just a phone call away. In what Few calls "brain sessions" with Stockton, the most famous former Zag, Bouldin learned the lesson that could be roughly described as "slow down and take control."

"Matt was always in a hurry his first two years," Few said. "Now he's making those reads. He's getting back in the pocket, seeing the Cover 2 or the blitz, instead of just going back and throwing the bomb."

Apologies for the football analogy. Don't blame Few, though. A reporter introduced the oblong spheroid by suggesting that Bouldin was built like a linebacker, the 6-foot-5, 224-pounder looking like he would be warmly greeted if he ventured south from Spokane to Pullman and told Washington State coach Paul Wulff he would like to suit up.

The marching orders from Few and the skull sessions with Stockton, however, did the basketball trick nicely. Bouldin scored 26 points in an overtime win at Tennessee, and has averaged more than 15 points per game since then, a span in which Gonzaga has won 20 of 21, the lone loss coming to No. 3 Memphis.

Bouldin, the Zags' second-leading scorer at 13.8 points per game, ended up losing out on West Coast Conference player of the year honors to Santa Clara center John Bryant -- controversially, some would say -- but advancing in the tournament figures to be a satisfying consolation prize.

Gonzaga, long the little program that could in March, hasn't, since Morrison left for the NBA (see consecutive first-round exits the previous two tournaments). Don't think for a moment that wasn't a scab that had been frequently picked by all who had fingers in the program.

Gonzaga 2.0 is all about being more than just a mid-major, and that requires regularly advancing.

"It was a huge relief," Bouldin admitted after Demetri Goodson's stunning, coast-to-coast, buzzer-beating drive had sent the Hilltoppers home.

"It means a lot because the last two years here we haven't gotten out of the first round. The expectations are really high here, the way -- like you said -- we've developed it out of being a mid-major into almost a major program. Expectations are really high. We feel it."

It doesn't get much more major-major than UNC. It's been 10 years since Gonzaga became America's Cinderella when it advanced to the Elite Eight and then was eliminated by eventual champion Connecticut.

If Bouldin is threatening to shave his briar patch of a hairdo if the Bulldogs pull off a Final Four run, what might he do to celebrate a berth in the Elite Eight?

It's suggested he could pay tribute to Morrison with a mustache.

"If I could grow it maybe I would," he said.

So a baby face elicits a sigh of relief from college basketball fans across the country.

The Tar Heels, however, probably don't want to let their guard down.

Ted Miller covers college football and basketball for ESPN.com.