Gonzaga faces challenging bracket

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    AP file photo/Young Kwak Gonzaga hopes to see more bench celebrations like this one, from their Feb. 23 home win over BYU, as the NCAA tournament begins this week.

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    AP file photo/Young Kwak Gonzaga hopes to see more bench celebrations like this one, from their Feb. 23 home win over BYU, as the NCAA tournament begins this week.

LAST WEEK

The suspense is over.

It’s also just beginning.

After nearly a week of angst following that frankly awful loss to Saint Mary’s, Gonzaga’s worries were eased Sunday when the NCAA selection committee awarded the Zags a No. 1 seed.

Yet somehow that distinction seemed to carry a shadow.

Not only did America seem to fall out of love with Gonzaga as a legitimate national title contender, the committee apparently was ready to ditch the Zags from the top line, as well.

If Tennessee (remember them?) had beaten Auburn in the finale of the SEC conference tournament, the Vols apparently would have been awarded that final No. 1 spot that went to Gonzaga.

Instead, red-hot Auburn hammered the Vols 84-64 and the Zags were safe.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement, eh?

“Had Tennessee won, we would have made the switch and put Tennessee on the (top) line, because they were playing so well,” said Bernard Muir, Stanford athletic director and committee chair.

“When you looked at their résumé, they had a head-to-head with Gonzaga and won that head-to-head. Had they won (over Auburn), I know we would have made a switch.”

You might ask why Tennessee was punished for its tournament defeat while the Zags apparently were not after looking punchless against Saint Mary’s.

The only logical answer is that the committee had Gonzaga and Tennessee ranked in that order prior to their conference tournaments, and kept that order when both fell into a ditch.

Meanwhile, CBS pundit Ken Boyle argued on the network’s Sunday show that Big Ten champion Michigan State deserved the No. 1 seed that went to Gonzaga.

“The Big Ten was top conference with eight teams in the (NCAA) tournament, so I think you have to reward the winner,” Boyle said. “Gonzaga was in a weaker conference, and lost in its tournament.”

The Spartans were 28-6, 16-4 to tie atop the Big Ten, and won the conference tournament to finish the regular season with five straight victories.

For what it’s worth, Gonzaga played Michigan State in a preseason scrimmage at East Lansing and thoroughly outplayed the Spartans — but it’s unlikely the committee considered that.

Instead of a No. 1 seed at the finish, Michigan State was handed what is presumably the toughest second seed of all, in the East Region where tourney favorite Duke is sitting at No. 1.

How do you make sense of that?

Meanwhile, hoops guru Andy Katz of ncaa.com unveiled his picks for the entire tournament, chose Gonzaga and Tennessee to meet in the title game, and decided that the Zags would win the rematch to grab their first national championship.

Katz pointed out that Gonzaga faced Tennessee (along with fellow tournament entrants Duke, Washington and North Carolina) without Killian Tillie and Geno Crandall.

Over the years, the committee has given mixed signals about how it might judge a team that suffers a critical injury to a player who will be available in the tournament.

This time around, members seemed to ignore Duke’s losses without star Zion Williamson — and perhaps gave Gonzaga some love for its competitive games without Tillie and Crandall.

Las Vegas bookmakers agreed with Katz, up to a point.

Gonzaga was the second choice at most betting parlors, checking in as a 5-1 choice to win it all — behind only Duke at 2-1.

So what does all this hand-wringing mean?

Not much, according to Zags coach Mark Few, who was probably the least bothered person in the whole scramble for a top-line entry into the Big Dance.

“There really isn’t much difference between the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds,” Few said. “There basically were seven or eight of us kind of jockeying back and forth to be on the top line.

“Being a No. 2 wouldn’t have been that big a deal. You still have to play some really good teams to advance, either way.”

To reach the Final Four, Gonzaga will have to contend with some unique styles, and certainly some extremely stingy defenses.

Assuming they survive the winner of tonight’s play-in game between Fairleigh Dickinson and Prairie View A&M — Gonzaga debuts in Salt Lake City on Thursday evening at 4:27 p.m. on TruTV — the Zags would face either Syracuse or Baylor on Saturday.

This will be the first time Gonzaga has been matched against a play-in team, by the way.

Both Syracuse and Baylor play zone defenses, but the ’Cuse (20-13 overall, 10-8 for seventh place in the ACC) has made it a calling card — and knocked the Zags out of the tournament with it twice in the past decade.

Gonzaga has seen that zone already this season, since Washington coach Mike Hopkins was a longtime assistant to Orange boss Jim Boeheim.

The Huskies took Gonzaga right to the wire in Spokane before losing on a last-second shot by Rui Hachimura.

The Zags did not look particularly fluid against that zone, so they could have a struggle on their hands just to escape the tournament’s first weekend.

In theory, you need to make 3-pointers to pry open a zone defense, and the Zags hit just two of their 14 heaves from deep against Saint Mary’s.

On the other hand, Syracuse didn’t exactly storm down the stretch in the regular season, losing five of its last seven — but the Orange did beat Duke on the road earlier in the year.

Baylor (19-13, 10-8 for fourth place in the Big 12) is a bit of a wild card, having looked both good and awful during the conference season.

For his part, Few would have none of looking ahead or rooting for one team or another with an eye on future rounds.

“It’s a cliché, but if you don’t focus on one game at a time and concentrate on the opponent right in front of you,” Few said, “you’ll find yourself going home.”

The Zags know to believe every word of their coach’s mantra.

“Our coaches will have all kind of tape on both (Fairleigh Dickinson and Prairie View A&M),” Crandall said.

“Everyone saw what happened last year.”

Crandall was referring to top seed Virginia’s stunning upset at the hands of Maryland-Baltimore County, the first time a No. 1 seed has ever lost to a No. 16.

That one will be a lesson to favorites for a long time.

NEXT WEEK

Brandon Clarke knows the secret to Gonzaga running deep into the NCAA tournament.

“We need to play a whole lot better than we did against Saint Mary’s,” Clarke said, stating the obvious.

Indeed, that 60-47 defeat in the WCC conference tournament final was the bottom of the barrel for the Zags.

But did the Gaels hit on the perfect formula to unhinge Gonzaga, or was that game pretty much an outlier?

“I don’t think it meant anything,” said CBS analyst Gary Parrish. “If it had happened in November, we wouldn’t even be talking about it.

“Look at how many conference champions lost in their own tournaments. These are teams that already are going to the NCAA tournament, and they know it — so whether it’s subconscious or not, they’re not playing with the same urgency as teams whose only chance is to win that conference tournament.”

That’s one way to look at it, although the other side is that Gonzaga was once again undone by an opponent’s offensive rebounding — if you can properly use the phrase “once again undone” about a team that went 30-3.

In all three losses, there was a marked disparity in second-chance points (Saint Mary’s center Jordan Hunter uncharacteristically looked like a beast in that win over the Zags), so the issue is a legitimate worry for Few and his staff.

So is pace.

Gonzaga wants to play at a fast clip, as its nation-leading 88.8 points per game would indicate.

Several contenders in the West Region make a living out of preventing that.

Michigan (No. 2) and Texas Tech (No. 3) trailed only Virginia in defensive efficiency according to the oft-cited Ken Pomeroy statistics.

Syracuse plays its maddening 2-3 zone with height, length and movement, and likewise is in no hurry to rush the ball up the floor.

Neither is Baylor.

To get out of the West Region, Gonzaga almost certainly will have to speed up teams and have no intention of allowing a breakneck pace — and that’s exactly how the Zags got so far out of sync against Saint Mary’s.

Winning the national championship is not supposed to be easy.

And it isn’t.

But Gonzaga could have been handed a slightly easier regional test, at least in terms of style.

The Zags will have to force their pace on teams that want none of it.

Hopefully they learned some lessons against Saint Mary’s.

The same goes last year and a Sweet 16 defeat to Florida State, which could be waiting in that exact spot again.

First of all, though, there is the matter of surviving the first week.

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Steve Cameron is a columnist for The Press. He’s a former sports writer with the Denver Post and Kansas City Star and the author of 13 sports books. He’s hosted radio programs specifically on college basketball. Email: scameron@cdapress.com

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