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John Blanchette: Gonzaga also feeling the self-inflicted pain of Saint Mary’s

UPDATED: Sun., March 11, 2018, 11:06 p.m.

Everything you need to know about why Gonzaga is exploring, weighing, entertaining – or even just aware of – a possible jump to the Mountain West Conference you could learn on Selection Sunday.

It came along maybe, what, 20 minutes into TBS’ misbegotten new bracket reveal? Might have been 15 minutes, or 25. It was easy to lose track of time while Ernie and Greg were filling us in on all the teams we already knew were in the bracket.

Anyway, after burying the lead, the TBS crew finally spilled the at-large invitees, in almost alphabetical order – Nevada sandwiched between North Carolina State and North Carolina for some reason. Finally came the S schools – and no Saint Mary’s.

Not before Seton Hall. Not after St. Bonaventure.

Nowhere to be found.

From Gonzaga’s private watch party in the Herak Club inside McCarthey Athletic Center, the gasp-roar all but blew down the closed door, and it was not a whoop of celebration. Whatever competitive acrimony may have built up between the Zags and Gaels over the years is natural, but when the conference you play in looks better, you look better.

And the 28-5 Gaels not being a part the NCAA Basketball Tournament field was not a good look for them or for the West Coast Conference.

“To see them not get in,” said Gonzaga senior Johnathan Williams, “man, that’s like a slap in the face. I hope they make a run to get in the tournament next year.

“I think we have a great conference. I just wish they’d show us more respect.”

Respect is something the Bulldogs obviously have. The committee members looked at Gonzaga’s 30-4 record, the 4-2 report card in each of the top two “quadrants” that have been added to the metric stew this year and the way the Zags tested themselves in the nonconference portion of the season. Then they awarded them a No. 4 seed and a short hop to Boise to play the usual dangerous mystery entry, 13th-seeded UNC Greensboro.

That esteem wasn’t a parting gift from their Final Four appearance of a year ago. It was earned in hostile gyms in Seattle, Moraga and Provo, at home against Creighton and in what was the best holiday tournament in history – but every night out, really.

After the bracket was revealed came the important part of Gonzaga coach Mark Few’s Sunday afternoon – prior to scouting video being cued up and ready for viewing, that is.

“It’s funny,” he said. “I had two people close to me – one on my staff and one that I happened to have been married to for 20-plus years – try to come up to me when the committee chair was talking and I had to snap and say, ‘Not now.’ Because I always listen to that. That’s when the edict is being passed down.

“I’m not very smart but the one smart thing I’ve done over the years is listen to what they say.”

And on Sunday, the message from committee chair Bruce Rasmussen to those schools left out was pretty clear: either they didn’t do enough with the opportunities they had, or in the cases of Saint Mary’s and USC, in particular, they sold themselves short.

“They didn’t play a very challenging schedule, even nonconference,” Rasmussen said of Saint Mary’s.

Ouch. “Even nonconference” is a swipe at both the Gaels and the WCC.

“That’s why we’ve always done this,” Few said. “Our schedule is built around preparing us to earn an at-large spot – and also if it can help us with recruiting and keep us as a national program.”

The WCC has a situation. Its flagship basketball school is, if not shopping itself around, aggressively examining alternatives because they long ago outgrew the league’s ambitions. And now the only program other than Gonzaga that’s spent any time in the Top 25 over the years has made it into the bracket just once in three seasons – despite winning no fewer than 27 games before Selection Sunday each time.

Because Gaels coach Randy Bennett won’t schedule anybody.

Two years ago, the Gaels didn’t leave the Bay Area until Jan. 7, or California until February. This season, with an All-America center and the most veteran lineup on the coast, the nonconference schedule was even worse. Those players should feel cheated. It’s no secret around college basketball that Nevada, Rhode Island and Creighton – tournament teams all – pitched home-and-return series to the Gaels, who took none of them. Yes, Creighton – as in where Rasmussen is employed as athletic director. Probably not a good strategy to advertise that you’re not interested in a better schedule.

The Zags know how good Saint Mary’s is. Why doesn’t Randy Bennett?

When the Gaels’ worthiness was broached a week ago in Las Vegas, his reaction was, “Do we need to discuss this?”

Do they ever.

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