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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Blanchette: Zags illustrate how to avoid the bubble

Time to say a few words over a dear departed friend.

Here lies … well, what do we call him?

The mid-major at-large? The non-power conference at-large? The blackballed-by-the-BCS-leagues at-large?

Clumsy labels all, but whatever you want to call him, he’s dead. Mike Slive and the other undertakers on the NCAA tournament selection committee sent him to a dirt nap Sunday, when the bracket for the ACC/Big East/Big Ten/Big 12/Pac-10 Invitational was announced.

And when Gonzaga coach Mark Few gave a mock mop of the brow.

“Thank God we’re not on the bubble,” he said. “I’m not sure there’s a worse feeling in the world.”

Lots of conclusions were there to be drawn from the exercise in algebra and voodoo that is the bracketing of the NCAA tournament, to say nothing of all the hollering done afterward. But what we learned here is this: What Gonzaga’s been doing with its schedule it had better keep on doing.

“It’s like you have to do that now to even be considered,” marveled Bulldogs guard Matt Bouldin.

No worries this year, of course. The Zags blew through the West Coast Conference 14-0, carved up two opponents in the league tournament and once again claimed the automatic bid that came with it. On Sunday, they were rewarded with a No. 4 seed in the South Region, a short trip to Portland and a Thursday afternoon date with the Akron Zips.

That’s right. The folks in Portland are going to catch some Z’s.

But part of the justification for that high seed is also the fact that they beat bracketfellows Tennessee, Maryland and Oklahoma State – and scheduled and lost to four others in the field. And this year more than ever the message was driven home for those not in the Big Football cabal that if you don’t seek out that kind of company in November and December, you’ll be playing in the Afterthought Invitational come the middle of March.

The selection committee had 34 at-large invitations to mail out Sunday and issued 30 of them to teams from the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC. Two more went to Dayton and Xavier of the Atlantic-10. Brigham Young got come-hither. Butler, too.

Four of 34. Why did they even bother?

Five years ago, at-large bids went to 12 teams from the mid-majors or non-traditional powers or whatever you want to call them. Those have dwindled to the point we might as well call it the Pluto of college basketball.

Slive, the commissioner of the SEC and this year’s committee chairman, predictably tried to steer it away from being class warfare – though the day’s poster child for being snubbed, Saint Mary’s, may still look at it that way.

“We understand that teams play in different configurations, and some have a more traditional configuration of teams that are successful,” he said. “So by talking about the full body of work, that November and December games count … then you’re giving every team in Division I an opportunity to play a game that is notable and to get a result that is notable. You know, there are several teams – you could take a Gonzaga, you could take a Butler, you could take Xavier – that at some point in time were not doing that. They’ve gone out and they’ve found a way to play games and to create a résumé that resonates with the committee.”

Few has been hearing that train come down the track for years now, to the point that a couple of times he may have overscheduled his team before New Year’s – at least in the sense of stacking up too many games with too much travel in a short period of time. But the Zags have evolved to a different level than their fellow WCCers and other mid-majors, and have been able to command neutral-site opportunities with big-name opposition and not settle for the road of no-return games.

“The problem for me is saying no because we like the challenge and it’s something we need to do,” he said. “But I will say when we were first getting started, when Dan (Monson) was head coach and I first took over, we played at Arizona one-for-none, we played at Kansas, Michigan State. Because that’s kind of what you had to do.”

Saint Mary’s had no such beasts this year – wins over Utah State and San Diego State were its biggies. The Gaels did try to schedule up against Oregon of the Pac-10 and traditional toughie Southern Illinois, but both turned out to be dogs – the lesson being that apparently you’re now also responsible for the opposing coach doing a lousy job.

In any case, the notion that Few might be tempted to ratchet down the schedule to better fit a team that will graduate four seniors can now be pretty much dismissed.

“Schedules like the one my freshman year and even this one do wear on you,” Bouldin said. “But you have to do it. And regardless of our age or experience level, we’re going to have to do it again next year.”

Or risk that at-large bubble hell, the land of the living dead.

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