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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

John Blanchette: On a topsy-turvy Selection Sunday, Gonzaga avoids another upset, holding on to No. 1 seed

UPDATED: Sun., March 17, 2019

So in case the Gonzaga Bulldogs still didn’t have that top-line feeling back after Terrible Tuesday, they were given an imprimatur on Selection Sunday.

And they had nothing to do with it.

Well, OK, they had something to do with it – plenty, really. Thirty wins worth of something, including over Duke at full Zion strength, which seems to be the only college basketball metric anybody cares about. The most dominant regular-season run through their conference in history. Eighty-six consecutive days of unbeaten basketball.

As a body of work, it was Charles Atlas-y if not the Incredible Hulk.

But the fact is, they were still 40 minutes from a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Basketball Tournament as late as Sunday morning – when they didn’t have a game scheduled.

And then Auburn gave Tennessee a 20-point noogie in the SEC championship game.

Gonzaga’s 31st win, as it were.

That preserved the Zags’ spot as a No. 1 seed in the bracket and a first-ever date with a play-in survivor – Fairleigh Dickinson or Prairie View A&M – on Thursday in Salt Lake City. Though as coach Mark Few noted “the difference between a No. 1 and No. 2 is not much, and not worth getting riled up about.”

Nevertheless, it remains “pretty cool,” as Zags forward Killian Tillie put it.

“And I think we deserve a No. 1 seed,” he said.

So did the selection and seeding committee – to a point.

“Had Tennessee won today we would have made the switch and put Tennessee on the 1 line, because they were playing so well,” said Bernard Muir, the committee chair and athletic director at Stanford.

“When you looked at their résumé, they had a head-to-head with Gonzaga and won that head-to-head. Had they won (over Auburn), I know we would have made a switch.”

Wait, the committee held the Vols’ loss to Auburn against them – but didn’t hold the Zags’ tumble against Saint Mary’s against them?

Welcome to the messy business of making Bracket Sausage.

The Bulldogs have been going through this for more than two decades now, and they have graduated from double-digit ambush artists to dismayed mid-level seed to sniped-at elite. The howling from the unselected and mal-seeded that accompanies each year’s announcement is something Few pretty much tunes out now, listening only to committee chairs for any signals about what kind of scheduling gets rewarded.

This year, the sniping was pretty muted. Belmont got an at-large bid, thrilling mid-majorphiles. UNC Greensboro – which sweated Gonzaga something crazy a year ago – got knocked out when Oregon won the Pac-12 Tournament. North Carolina State made a stink, and then wasn’t even good enough to get a top seed in the NIT.

And, yeah, there was some huffing about the top two lines – which may have been as indistinct as ever.

“You could have flipped a coin on a bunch of us,” said Few. “In our case, we ended up playing several other teams that were up for consideration, and I had a chance to watch most of the others, and they were all deserving and really good.

“At times this year, Kentucky has been playing better than anybody, quite frankly. Michigan State made a great run late. Early in the season, Michigan was phenomenal. There were eight of us up there moving back and forth, which is why I think everybody makes a bigger deal of it than it is.”

Muir acknowledged that Michigan State’s win on Sunday vaulted the Spartans over Kentucky to No. 6 on the seed list – and temperatures spiked when they wound up in the same region as Duke, the overall No. 1.

Gonzaga actually got the “last” No. 2, Michigan, in its region, but to get there the Zags will likely have to beat Syracuse, a particular NCAA nemesis, and Florida State, which eliminated them a year ago. Don’t think either of those possibilities don’t have the fan base in a dither.

“What are they doing on the 8 line?” Few wondered of the Orange.

Of course, out there in Outraged America, people wonder about the Zags on the top line. Tennessee had that head-to-head win. Michigan State had more Quadrant 1 wins – 13 – than anyone in the country. Kentucky, well… gulp.

Then again, while it’s not Zion-comparable, it should be remembered that two of Gonzaga’s three losses – to the Vols and North Carolina – came before either Tillie or Geno Crandall could join the lineup.

“We thought going in that Gonzaga deserved to be on the 1 line,” said Muir. “They’ve done enough work. We know when you watch them, you look at their metrics, that is a quality team and certainly deserving of a No. 1 seed. And that’s where we kept them.”

Well, that’s where Auburn kept them, anyway.

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