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Blanchette: Of all years for the Zags to be on the edge

John Blanchette Correspondent

LAS VEGAS – The madness of college basketball is far too expansive to be limited to March. Although that’s as good a time as any.

A reminder is in the works in Florida where the tournament championship of something called the Atlantic Sun Conference will be settled Sunday between Stetson and Florida Gulf Coast. The Hatters – really, about as good as it gets for nicknames in NCAA Division I – are the epitome of Cinderella with a 12-21 record, except they’re not eligible for NCAA tournament play because their Academic Progress Rate is, well, the equivalent of 12-21.

So if they happen to win, the conference’s automatic berth will go to regular-season champion North Florida. Which lost to Gulf Coast in the semis by a mere 33 points.

If you really parse it out, it makes complete sense – and that’s so rare in college athletics that in itself is utter madness.

Here at the West Coast Conference tournament, nothing quite so wacky is unfolding. Unless you count that Thursday’s survivors in the women’s bracket don’t play again until Monday, and that at least one of them – Santa Clara – returned to campus rather than parry the temptations of Vegas for three days. Now if that doesn’t speak to the glories of “the student-athlete tournament experience” so lauded by athletic directors, nothing does.

Tonight, the Gonzaga men begin their quest for an 18th straight trip to the NCAAs through the only avenue that remains open to them – winning the WCC tournament and the league’s auto bid.

(More prudent – and more learned – minds have not dismissed their chances of an at-large invitation. But in this space, the impulsive hipshot still rules.)

And if there is a poster child for the tenor and tribulation of the 2016 college basketball season, it might well be Gonzaga.

We have been buried under documentation and sneers that there are no great teams this season. (If there’s anything a fan hates worse than dynasties or domination, it’s parity.) The easiest to cite is the fact that the current AP Top 10 share 53 losses among them.

At this time a year ago, that number was 28 – and it hadn’t been higher than 40 in the previous five.

Kansas, top-ranked and the closest thing to a true elite, has four losses, including one to No. 158 in the RPI. Duke is not Duke, Kentucky not Kentucky. Yes, most of the familiar names favored in the preseason to win their conference round-robins are doing just that. But they’re doing it with four, five, six losses – which only speaks to how equal (or ordinary) teams have been this year.

“I think it’s an anomaly,” said Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd. “Some of the blue-blood schools lost some one-and-done guys and their next group hasn’t been quite as ready. There are some programs that might have veteran pieces, but then an injury happens – we kind of fall into that.”

But the real anomaly would be Gonzaga not in the NCAAs.

Ninth in the preseason AP poll, they cannot inveigle a vote these days. (UConn, LSU, Butler and Michigan are in the same club, but none were so well thought of as the Zags.) There are seven teams in the current Top 25 with more losses than GU – Texas has 11! – but no one suggests an injustice.

They scheduled for an at-large bid – SMU, the Bahamas tournament, UCLA, Arizona – but didn’t perform that way. Heavily favored in the WCC, they needed a steely effort at BYU in the season finale just to salvage a share of another title.

They were, of course, stung by the back injury that felled their giant, Przemek Karnowski, and possibly the emotional holding pattern they put themselves in for a month – will he return, or won’t he? – stunted some growth. It’s not a stretch to suggest his presence changes the outcome in two or three of those resume games, most of which were one-possession jobs in the final minute.

Two more wins, and Gonzaga has put a saddle on the bubble.

And don’t even torture the Zags fan with the what-if of bad timing: their best team coming together a year too early to take advantage of this season’s Ode to Average.

There is still this year, even if the Zags’ margin is as thin as Rick Pitino’s skin.

Because the same thing that’s made this an unfulfilling season for the Bulldogs is pretty much pandemic in college basketball.

“We’ve just got to keep our head down and find a way to get to the (NCAA) tournament,” Lloyd said. “Because with preparation and good performances, I feel we can win games there – multiple games. We have the pieces to do it, and it’s the kind of year you’re not going to be overwhelmed by anybody.”

That’s not March talking. It’s the narrative of the previous four months.

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