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Eastern Washington University Basketball

John Blanchette: After a year of social distancing, Gonzaga’s NCAA Tournament draw brings them close to familiar foes

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

Wait, didn’t the NCAA decide it wasn’t going to rename the regions in its big basketball hoedown, even with the entire tournament bubbled in one city?

No tributes to the game’s greats or some similar PR-y thing, but just the usual geography?

So why when Sunday’s selection show came on did we see teams assigned to the South, the Midwest, the East … and the Do-Over Region?

Where the committee slotted Gonzaga.

The Bulldogs are high atop the whole field, of course, as the overall No. 1 seed, another program first. They’ve got Vegas behind them – odds on the Zags running the table are 2-1 at most books, and no worse than 5-2. The punditry is in virtual lockstep.

But what’s the deal with the bracket?

Make no mistake, it was great seeing Greg Gumbel again, and the Charles, Sam and Spike ads, too – they make great Pips. If staging a basketball season in the middle of a pandemic was an angsty proposition, there was reassurance in seeing the bracket revealed.

And the launching of a thousand arguments over seeds and snubs is March comfort food.

But the whole thing took on kind of a gauzy weirdness just a couple of minutes into Sunday’s show, when the No. 4 seed on Gonzaga’s quarter of the field came up Virginia.

Which you’ll remember the Bulldogs taking down by 23 points the day after Christmas, the last of GU’s Top 25 gantlet before the calendar turned over.

Moments later the No. 3 seed in the region was revealed to be … Kansas. The Jayhawks – who open the tournament against 14th-seeded Eastern Washingtongave up 102 points in losing to Gonzaga in the season opener.

And finally the No. 2 seed … Iowa. Another Gonzaga victim in December.

What, did a bunch of teams opt out between the end of the Big Ten title game and the CBS theme song? Alabama and Texas couldn’t have been acquired in a region swap, with a 15th seed to be named later?

The clueless critics always like to say that Gonzaga plays nobodies, but is there a reason the Zags have to play the somebodies on their schedule twice?

Well, the bracket overseers are never going to get everything right, and this year just getting a tournament to the starting line is right enough.

But there is an explanation of sorts for how such a thing could happen. It basically boils down to this: you can only do so much.

“There’s several principles that are involved,” explained Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart, the committee chair, “and it depends on which conversations you’re having. There are conference-in-conference protocols that we certainly try to pay attention to. We’d prefer not to have teams play each other in the tournament that have played multiple times, if we can avoid that. There are principles in place, and we avoid those matchups, especially early – trying to push those later into the brackets. (But) that’s first round-only on that.”

Having, say, nine Big Ten teams in the field cuts down on the options for social distancing when it comes to familiar opponents beyond the first 32 games. It’s just curious that this, uh, coincidence could lasso Gonzaga with teams they’ve already met from three different conferences.

And, of course, there is no guarantee the Zags will even hook up with any of them. Madness happens.

Virginia’s players are still in COVID quarantine after a positive test forced their withdrawal from the ACC Tournament. They won’t arrive for their Saturday game until Friday, and the player who contracted the virus wouldn’t be able to play until round two – providing the Cavs can get by Ohio and Jason Preston, one of the tournament’s most appealing talents.

On the other side of the Do-Over region, Kansas is dealing with COVID issues, too, and if Colgate isn’t the most dangerous 14 seed in the field, Eastern is. Oregon has to be smarting from losing to rival Oregon State in the Pac-12 Tournament and figures to be a handful for Iowa in the second round.

The notion out there is that the Zags drew the weakest region simply because they’ve whacked 2-3-4 already. And maybe not. Oklahoma and Missouri – GU’s possible opponents in a second round – have three times as many Quad 1 victories between them than other 8-9 seed combination.

And Gonzaga having dispatched Virginia, Kansas and Iowa with such relative ease earlier is bound to add some psychological baggage on both sides, not necessarily to the Zags’ advantage. A familiar opponent already knows what doesn’t work.

There’s a reason why horseplayers study the Daily Racing Form. Past performance counts. It just doesn’t necessarily predict the next performance.

Still, this might have been the first NCAA bracket to come with spoiler alerts.

Is there time for a do-over?