Lose to Saint Mary’s and get punished.
Sure, Gonzaga wound up with the last No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament — causing howls from many Eastern media members — but it was as close to a poison pill as the committee could manage.
The Zags should cruise this Thursday, dismissing the winner of a play-in game between Fairleigh Dickinson and Prairie View A&M, but then comes the survivor of a Baylor-Syracuse battle.
If Gonzaga can navigate the first weekend and there are no major upsets, we could see a rematch of last year’s Sweet 16 loss to deep and athletic Florida State.
So, sure, the Zags hung on to a top seed, and they get to open at Salt Lake City in the West Region.
But Syracuse plays that famous 2-3 zone with great length, and Baylor switches from man-to-man to a zone of its own.
The ’Cuse have routinely overperformed in the NCAA funfest because teams rarely see a tall, quick zone, and it’s something that’s truly hard to simulate in practice.
THE GOOD news for the Zags is that they don’t need to imitate the Syracuse zone in workouts.
They’ve faced it already.
Longtime Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins nearly hauled Washington past Gonzaga at the Kennel, falling only to Rui Hachimura’s jumper with less than a second to play.
Washington gave the Zags a long and unpleasant look at Jim Boeheim’s famous zone, so Coach Mark Few has plenty of replay tape to show his players if Syracuse beats Baylor.
Honestly, if Gonzaga plays to its ability, reaching the Sweet 16 feels fairly reasonable.
Ah, but we all have memories of Florida State from a year ago — when the Zags were knocked out of the tournament at the same spot by the swarming Seminoles, a game that began Killian Tillie’s long battle with injuries.
Almost every analyst mentioned Gonzaga’s little corner of the West Region as just about the toughest path to the Elite Eight that any No. 1 seed will face.
Despite all the scary stories about what can happen to the Zags, the wise guys in Las Vegas have dismissed the loss to Saint Mary’s entirely.
ONE VEGAS sports book installed the Zags as 5-1 to win the national championship, second favorites behind Duke (2-1).
“Whether (the loss to Saint Mary’s) was a good thing or not, we need to make it a good thing,” Few said.
“It can be a positive thing if we use this to recalibrate.”
You get the sense that Few likes his team’s chances to run deep into the NCAA tournament, as he mentioned on the CBS post-announcement show that Tillie could be difference-maker against zones, and that the No. 1 seed wasn’t really a big deal.
“There really were six or seven of us (teams) in the mix,” Few said of reaching the top line of the bracket. “It’s not too much different playing the winner of an 8-9 game or a 7-10 game.
“There are a lot of good teams out there.”
Asked if he’d looked far enough to note that rematch with Duke — reprising their classic battle in Maui — would have to come in the Final Four, Few naturally insisted that, no, he certainly hadn’t looked that far ahead.
“But it would be pretty cool,” he added.
And despite what the doubters think, it’s not impossible.
Steve Cameron’s “Cheap Seats” columns for The Press appear on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. He also contributes the “Zags Tracker” package on Gonzaga basketball each Tuesday.
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