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Blanchette: Field set, Gonzaga relieved to be in it

Greg Gumbel, the Bert Parks of Selection Sunday, hadn’t even taken his first breath when the yowling began drifting in from Bracket Nation. UAB? Clemson? If the NCAA committee was going to put anyone in, why not Northwestern, which has had its nose against the glass for 73 years? The overall No. 1 seed, Ohio State, in a region with North Carolina, Syracuse and Kentucky – while Pitt gets valet parking to the Final Four? More teams – 68 – are in the NCAA basketball tournament than ever before and still the complaints and conspiracy theories topped all previous records, except at Gonzaga University, where both opportunity and perspective have been hard-won. “This is one year,” coach Mark Few said, “I would have crawled on broken glass to Cleveland to play.” As opposed to, say, Randy Bennett, who is probably chewing it. His Saint Mary’s Gaels were among the purported worthies – Colorado, Virginia Tech, Alabama – given tickets to Snubworld, also known as the NIT. For Few, Selection Sunday 2011 was a revelation – even as the 13th in an unbroken chain of Gonzaga appearances. “It’s crazy how nervous you get even when you know you’re in,” he marveled. It didn’t help that the Bulldogs were the last team to go up on the board, an 11 seed being sent to Denver to meet sixth-seeded St. John’s, whose resurgence under recovering media employee Steve Lavin has been one of the fun stories of the college basketball season. Nearly the same thing happened in 2008 when the Zags were in the last group revealed – and yet somehow seemed more secure then as an at-large invitee than being the West Coast Conference’s automatic representative this year. “Maybe the committee made a mistake,” Few’s 11-year-old son, A.J., worried. “Maybe they forgot about us.” Well, about the middle of January, almost everyone else had. That the Zags have played their way back into the national consciousness has been a pretty fun story, too, not least of all to the players and coaches who willed it a practice at a time. So there was celebration Sunday as the Zags watched the show in private, and yet even now “just a feeling of relief,” senior Steven Gray admitted. Some of that could have been from seeing the seed line and Saint Mary’s exclusion. Surely it had to raise the question that if the Zags hadn’t won the WCC tournament, would the NCAA committee have harshed their mellow? “I don’t know,” Few admitted. “I think we had some better wins than some teams that did get in. But I’m not quite sure what the message was, and I usually try to be pretty keen to what they’re trying to say and I factor that into how we schedule. I’m just not sure what the message was this year.” Mixed, is what it was. For example, one of the snubbees fomenting the most outrage seems to be Colorado, which beat Big 12 lodge brothers Missouri, Texas and Kansas State – the Wildcats a stunning three times. But the Buffs were also boat-raced by Harvard – no, not the rowing team – and scheduled no fewer than seven non-conference tomato cans with RPIs of 294 and lower. But this was a season when parity and mediocrity – pariocrity? – met at the cut line. Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth heard one factoid that even tossing out the four-team expansion, this field had more losses in the participants’ records than any previous tournament. Few scheduled a few himself this year, with the usual eye to what the committee wants to see. But selection committee chair Gene Smith of Ohio State cautioned that’s not enough now, either. “Scheduling intent is not really a factor,” he said. “It still goes back to ‘Who did you play, where did you play them and how did you do?’ “You still have to be successful. You have to execute.” Down the stretch of the season, Saint Mary’s – for instance – didn’t. Its only truly notable wins were, with a dab of irony, St. John’s (in the season opener, at home) and Gonzaga – and the Zags came back to beat the Gaels twice to cement an already spirited relationship into fierce rivalry. And if you don’t think that pleased the Bulldogs even beyond the sheer necessity of a W or two, then you only needed to hear guard Marquise Carter confess that, “We were really happy to see them not make it.” Uh, that may not have come out the way he intended it. “If it comes down to us or them,” said Gray, a more veteran hand at these things, “and it sort of played out that way, we’re happy to be where we’re at.” En route to Denver – on their feet, with no broken glass in their path.
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