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Gonzaga lands No. 1 seed in NCAA Tournament, ‘validation’ for season-long performance

UPDATED: Sun., March 17, 2019, 9:54 p.m.

Gonzaga's Rui Hachimura speaks to the media on Selection Sunday in the McCarthey Athletic Center on March 17, 2019. Gonzaga is the No. 1 seed in the West Region. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga's Rui Hachimura speaks to the media on Selection Sunday in the McCarthey Athletic Center on March 17, 2019. Gonzaga is the No. 1 seed in the West Region. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

From Twitter to a lengthy roster of TV analysts, it was nearly impossible to ignore the debate leading up to Selection Sunday whether Gonzaga deserved a No. 1 or No. 2 seed.

The Zags heard it, too. And late Sunday afternoon, they erupted in applause when they heard their name called during CBS’s selection show as the No. 1 seed in the West Region.

Gonzaga (30-3) will play at 4:27 p.m. Thursday in Salt Lake City. The Zags will face the winner of Fairleigh Dickinson and Prairie View A&M. Those squads meet Tuesday in the First Four in Dayton.

The Zags didn’t get caught up in all the seeding chatter.

“We talked about it, but it’s outside our control,” junior forward Rui Hachimura said. “We can’t do anything about it. It doesn’t matter; we have to beat everybody anyway. I was focused on what we did wrong against Saint Mary’s (in last Tuesday’s WCC Tournament title loss). We practiced hard the last two days. That was important.”

The No. 1 seed did resonate with the Zags, who went 4-3 against teams that made the NCAA Tournament (Duke, Tennessee, North Carolina, Washington and Saint Mary’s).

“It kind of validates the body of work we had throughout the year,” senior guard Geno Crandall said. “At the end of the day, it’s just a number next to a name on a piece of paper or on a TV screen. You’re going to have to perform for 40 minutes. Higher seeds lose all the time, lower seeds win.

“Honestly, it felt good for a moment but after that you’re like, ‘Let’s play.’”

“Being a 1 or 2 is the right thing for us, coach (Mark) Few was saying,” junior forward Brandon Clarke said. “Either way, we were going to be fine but it is cool being a No. 1.”

Since 1979, when the entire tournament field was seeded for the first time, 23 No. 1 seeds and seven No. 2s have captured national championships. Duke is the top overall seed. The Blue Devils are joined on the one line by fellow ACC members North Carolina and Virginia.

Salt Lake City is fairly close for Zag fans planning to attend. It’s roughly a two-hour direct flight or 12-hour drive.

“I’m sure they’re texting me right now,” senior point guard Josh Perkins said of his Denver-based family. “I’m sure mom is going to hop in the car and come see her baby boy for the last time in March Madness.”

Denver was hit hard by a mid-week winter storm. “I think my fam might still be in Las Vegas because they got stuck,” Perkins said. “Tough break, right? I think pops is loving it with the heat and his friends.”

The Zags will face a conference tournament champion in the first round. Second-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson beat No. 1 Saint Francis 85-76 to capture the Northeast Conference for the second time in four years. The Knights (20-13), from Teaneck, New Jersey, are riding an eight-game winning streak. They won 14 of their last 16.

Prairie View A&M, located about 50 miles from Houston, has won its last 11 games, including a 92-86 victory over Texas Southern in the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship. The Panthers (22-12), who also won the SWAC regular-season title, beat the WCC’s Santa Clara in their season opener before dropping 11 consecutive games.

Gonzaga thumped Texas Southern 104-67 in November.

This is the first time Gonzaga will face a play-in winner in its first-round game. The Zags just went through a similar experience, not learning their WCC Tournament semifinal matchup until a few days before the game.

“They (coaches) will probably have 10 pages of stuff ready on either team,” Crandall smiled. “For the players, we usually focus on ourselves earlier in the week anyway. Later in the week we apply whatever the coaches tell us in the scouting report and focus on that for a day or two in practice before we play.”

If the Zags win their opener, they would face the winner of No. 8 Syracuse and No. 9 Baylor. Syracuse has knocked Gonzaga out of the NCAA Tournament twice this decade. The 11th-seeded Zags fell to the 10th-seeded Orange 63-60 in the Sweet 16 in 2016, and top-seeded Syracuse thumped No. 8 GU 87-65 in the 2010 round-of-32.

Baylor (19-13) finished fourth in the Big 12 Conference. John Jakus was Gonzaga’s director of operations for three years before joining Baylor’s staff as an assistant coach in May, 2017. Former Gonzaga walk-on Rem Bakamus is a Bears’ graduate assistant.

Michigan is the West’s second seed, Big 12 co-champion Texas Tech is third and Florida State, which ended Gonzaga’s 2018 season in the Sweet 16, is the four.

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