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John Blanchette: Razor-thin margin could be the difference in cross-country trek for either Gonzaga or San Diego State come March Madness

UPDATED: Sat., Feb. 8, 2020

The month-before NCAA Tournament bracket reveal has become part of the sports furniture – or perhaps it’s more accurate to say it’s blended into the woodwork.

Did Saturday’s announcement of the top four seeds at this point move the sports news needle at all? Not when it had to compete with…

  • Bobby Knight finally ending his 20-year boycott of basketball at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Indiana;
  • The launch of the XFL 2.0;
  • And actual basketball games that might actually influence the actual seeding in March.

The February bracket tease was created four years ago, mostly as a way to goose public interest à la the weekly College Football Playoff rankings. Except those come out on news-arid Tuesdays. College hoops decides to make its splash on a day when the pond is already full of big-fish games like Duke-North Carolina, Virginia-Louisville, Seton Hall-Villanova and Auburn-LSU. To say nothing of Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s.

Speaking of which, there seems to be a question for the tournament committee from the 619 area code:

How about a do-over?

Yes, San Diego State – pride of the 6-1-9 – absorbed its first defeat of the season on Saturday when the committee slotted the unbeaten-on-the-court Aztecs on the No. 1 line, but behind Baylor, Kansas and Gonzaga in the batting order, a suggestion that the Californians might want to invest $6.95 in one of those laminated New York City tourist maps.

The winner in that zero-sum equation being Gonzaga.

And the Bulldogs did nothing to stoke any dissent, carving up the Gaels 90-60 in Moraga, California, on Saturday night. With probably three more stabs at Top 50 wins to come, the Zags aren’t likely to slip, either.

It’s been drummed into us incessantly almost since the season’s opening tip that this is the Year of Chaos in college basketball. Seven teams atop the AP Top 25 at various times. Talent diluted by early defections to the pros – and not just lottery-pick talent. A down year in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Lots of good teams, no great ones.

The Mixmaster element was fully illustrated in Saturday’s reveal of the top four seed lines. Nine conferences were represented (compared to six a year ago), and three of the top eight teams come from non-Power 6 leagues – the Zags, of course, being less a product of their conference than of their own vision.

But the real outlier of 2020 – if Saturday’s top-end bracket holds – is seeing two No. 1 seeds from the West Coast.

Since the committee began seeding the full field in 1979, that’s happened exactly … once. That was in 2000, when Arizona and Stanford graced the top line.

The upshot is obvious. With both the Zags and Aztecs as No. 1s, one of them will have to be sent out of the region. And right now the committee’s choice to do the time-zone warp is San Diego State.

“It was razor-close between Gonzaga and San Diego State,” offered the committee’s vice chair, University of Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart. “Gonzaga had a couple of wins just slightly better… Oregon and Arizona.”

That apparently outweighed the Aztecs’ two notable advantages – that unbeaten record and their spot atop the NET computer aggregation, eight spots ahead of Gonzaga.

“Razor’s-edge difference,” Barnhart repeated.

Except this razor is about 2,500 miles wide.

The committee, at this juncture, is keeping Gonzaga in the West Region and assigning the Aztecs to the East – though both teams are almost assured to open the tournament at pods in Spokane and Sacramento, respectively. If they advance, the Zags would head to the Staples Center in Los Angeles – and San Diego State to Madison Square Garden.

Where, if the seeds hold, the Aztecs would play Duke for a chance to go the Final Four.

“Not where you want to play Duke,” said ESPN analyst Sean Farnham on Saturday night. “That’s Cameron Indoor North.”

This brought up the theory that it might be in the Aztecs’ best interest – or Gonzaga’s, should the teams swap places before D-Day on March 15 – to drop to a No. 2 seed and stay out West. Though what kind of delicate tanking might be needed to achieve that is unknown.

Or the committee could massage the seeds, throwing the long-distance team a bone.

“We’ve had multiple east teams that have had to go west,” Barnhart said. “In the history of the tournament, top-seeded teams were assigned to a regional three time zones away nine times. All of them were teams from the Eastern Time Zone, and two won a national championship and three more advanced to the Final Four. That’s part of the process.

“But if someone is legitimately a top-four team, they must be a No. 1 seed. You don’t artificially break up the bracket.”

Then again, that would make a splash.

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