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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Blanchette: All giddy on the western front

March 12, 2017 Updated Sun., March 12, 2017 at 10:18 p.m.

Gonzaga guard Josh Perkins celebrates a foul called on Arizona, Dec. 3, 2016, at the Staples Center in Los Angles, Calif. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga guard Josh Perkins celebrates a foul called on Arizona, Dec. 3, 2016, at the Staples Center in Los Angles, Calif. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

If it wasn’t exactly West Coast Bias, it was at least … what?

A West Coast Wink? Tolerance? Grudging Acknowledgement?

Hell, no. It was West Coast Love.

Big Love.

Not that the NCAA selection committee had all that much choice but to give it up to the West on Sunday. The portfolios were too good, the scrubbing too clear-cut, the eye test too eye-popping.

So, yeah, there were the Gonzaga Bulldogs there among the No. 1 seeds, as expected – as merited, given their 32-1 record and especially the elements the committee so loves to parse. Road or neutral-site victories over 2, 4, 5 and 7 seeds in the tournament? Pass Go and collect a spot on the top line, fellas.

But there were also Arizona, Oregon and UCLA on lines two and three, and the germ of a notion that this might be the year where basketball out in the Pacific time zone might not be a March punch line.

The Zags took their distinction in predictable stride, an example set by the head man, Mark Few, and repeated in eerie verbatim by the players themselves – a message that the seed doesn’t matter, that it’s all about the matchup and their own performance. All of it undeniably true.

“And if you slide to No. 2, it’s not the end of the world,” said assistant coach Tommy Lloyd. “Maybe you use it to add a little fuel to the fire.”

But there is this: In the bracket era of 64 or more teams, No. 1 seeds have made it to the Final Four almost twice as often as No. 2s – 52 to 28.

Not that probability is outcome.

And the Zags are already sweating the details of Thursday’s 11 a.m. PDT pairing against the South Dakota State Jackrabbits and their big bopper – hopper? – Mike Daum, college basketball’s prototype stretch five. Because there’s more pressing numerical history to think about: not becoming the first No. 1 to lose to a 16 seed.

But three days remain to dig into those particulars. After Sunday’s doings, maybe it’s time for a little regional appreciation.

When the Zags settled in as a No. 1 seed, Arizona a 2 – both in the West Region – and Oregon and UCLA as 3s, it was a show of unprecedented respect by the committee. Never before has the West had four schools on the top three lines. Once, in 1991, the committee placed UNLV at No. 1, Arizona at No. 2 and UCLA and Utah as fours. That’s also the last time the West Region actually had teams from the West as its top two seeds.

In 2001, the bracket did have Arizona and Stanford both as No. 1s – Arizona holding seed all the way to the Final Four.

But it was just five seasons ago that the Pac-12 put only two teams into the tournament, period. One, Colorado, was an 11 seed; the other, Cal, was shipped off to play-in purgatory in Dayton.

So what’s happened?

“There are good teams in the West, that’s what’s different,” said Few. “They’re legitimate. In my opinion, we were all kind of 1A, 1B, 1C and 1D out here.”

By the committee’s ranking, the numbers were 4 (Gonzaga), 6 (Arizona), 9 (Oregon) and 11 (UCLA). In the Pac-12, the big three played tag – Arizona beat UCLA, the Bruins beat Oregon, the Ducks beat Arizona – and the Zags picked off the Wildcats before all that cannibalism.

The Pac-12 programs might have merited even higher regard if the conference hadn’t turned all squishy behind them. Only USC among the rest of the league made the field – as a play-in.

This surely sent Bill Walton off to his tipi in apoplexy. Squeezed in among his 1,248 “Conference of Champions” references on TV the other night was his claim that the Pac-12 would get six – if not seven – teams into the bracket. This may have been around the time he said Gonzaga played in a “truck stop conference.”

Let’s everybody have what he’s having.

But for the first time since UCLA’s three straight trips ending in 2008, the West could see a team – even multiples – in the Final Four, thanks to the Pac-12’s surge at the top. And it’s not all a new wave of talent.

As it did in the late 2000s, the league will be hit by some early defections to the NBA draft. This time, it might be better able to weather them.

“The recruiting is different now,“ said Washington State coach Ernie Kent, whose Oregon teams made some mid-2000s noise. “Look at what Lorenzo Romar’s doing at Washington for next year. You know UCLA will reload, USC has a lot back, Dana (Altman, at Oregon) and Arizona will reload. I think the league is in better shape now.”

And the Zags? Well, it’s only their 19th straight NCAA appearance. They seem to have the hang of it.

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