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Gonzaga, Arizona top contenders for No. 1 seed in West Region

Gonzaga and Arizona were scheduled to meet at McCarthey Athletic Center in November in a matchup of Western basketball powers.

The game was scrubbed last May, less than a month after former Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd landed the Arizona job. Lloyd wasn’t thrilled about facing his former school so early in his Arizona tenure and Gonzaga coach Mark Few hasn’t shown much interest in scheduling games against his former assistants.

As the 2022 season speeds toward Selection Sunday on March 13, Gonzaga and Arizona appear to be the top contenders for the No. 1 seed in the West Region, provided they continue at their current pace.

In Gonzaga’s case, that’s not much of a surprise. The Zags were No. 1 in the AP preseason poll. They’re No. 1 in the NET rankings and they’re 7-2 in Quad 1/2 games with convincing wins over Texas, UCLA and Texas Tech.

Arizona, which visits Washington State on Thursday, shared fourth with Oregon State in the Pac-12 preseason poll, but Lloyd has guided the Wildcats to a two-game lead over UCLA and Oregon in the conference standings and a 7-2 mark against Quad 1/2 foes. They’re third in the NET.

This is familiar territory for the Zags, who have been in the West Region bracket eight of the past 11 years there’s been an NCAA Tournament. That doesn’t include 2020 when the Zags were projected as the West’s top seed until the tournament was canceled in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gonzaga has been No. 1 in the West bracket in three of the past four tournaments. The perks are obvious. The top seed typically plays closer to home during the first two weeks of March Madness, giving fans a better chance to be in attendance.

Portland and San Diego are the closest first-weekend sites this season. The West Region semifinals and finals will be at the Chase Center in San Francisco. The Final Four is in New Orleans.

The top seed presumably faces an easier path in terms of rivals’ seeding. In reality, how teams match up is probably more important than the opponent’s position on the seed line.

The Zags’ best tournament runs have come as the No. 1 seed in the West when they advanced to the 2017 and 2021 national championship games. In 2017, Gonzaga won two games in Salt Lake City, two more in San Jose, California, before eventually falling to North Carolina in the title game.

Gonzaga went 5-1 in last year’s tournament, all staged in the Indianapolis area for COVID-19 reasons. The Zags won twice in Salt Lake City and once in Anaheim before losing to Texas Tech in the 2019 Elite Eight.

GU is 14-4 as the No. 1 seed in the West, including a 1-1 mark in 2013 in Salt Lake City. The Zags are 4-2 as a No. 2 seed, including an Elite Eight loss to South Region No. 1 seed Duke in 2015.

The latest bracket projections from ESPN’s Joe Lunardi and CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm have Gonzaga as the West’s top seed. Palm has Arizona as the top seed in the East. Lunardi lists Arizona as the top seed in the South.

Palm’s bracket has Gonzaga facing Norfolk State in the first round in Portland with the winner facing No. 8 Colorado State or No. 9 USC. The Zags defeated Norfolk State 98-55 in the first round last season and USC 85-66 to advance to the Final Four. Kentucky is the No. 2 seed, Baylor No. 3 and Villanova No. 4 on Palm’s bracket.

Lunardi has the Zags meeting Cleveland State in the first round and a potential second-round game against No. 8 Boise State or No. 9 Iowa State. The Broncos are coached by Leon Rice, who was a GU assistant for 11 seasons under Few.

Lunardi’s West bracket has Duke at No. 2, Texas Tech No. 3 and Wisconsin No. 4. One of Gonzaga’s two losses was against Duke, 84-81 in Las Vegas in November. The Zags defeated Texas Tech 69-55 in Phoenix in December.

The selection committee’s annual reveal of the top 16 seeds will be Feb. 19 on CBS.

With Gonzaga and Arizona among the tournament favorites and battling for top seeds, the earliest chance of a possible Zags-Wildcats showdown would probably be a regional final or at the Final Four.