Gonzaga’s basketball team, I keep hearing, could command more national respect if the school dropped its affiliation with the West Coast Conference and joined a league cluttered with heavyweights.
If Gonzaga ever was tempted to take a step up in class, the temptation was scotched once and for all Sunday. The NCAA tournament selection committee awarded the Zags the fourth and final No. 1 seed, an honor that came at the expense of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Miami Hurricanes, the champion of the ACC in the regular season and in the conference tourney.
The last time an ACC team with such an impressive résumé was snubbed like that? Never.
“Miami had a tremendous year,” selection chairman Mike Bobinski said to an apparently incredulous panel of CBS studio analysts, each clinging to the traditional notion of the ACC as college basketball’s blue-blood conference.
“If we had five spots, Miami would be there with us,” continued Bobinski. “We have great appreciation for the great year Miami had. But in the final
analysis, we put Gonzaga just ahead of them. But it was very, very close.”
Bobinski’s gushing over Miami didn’t settle the issue. It was extended into overtime on ESPN, whose panelists appeared crestfallen that the Hurricanes — undisputed champions of a league long dominated by Duke and North Carolina — were forced to settle for a No. 2 seed.
The fallout was pretty amusing. After all these years of hearing about the inferior competition they faced in the WCC, the Gonzaga players accepted the designation of No. 1 seed in the West Region with high-beam smiles and index fingers held aloft.
None of them was giving a hoot about Miami, or the ACC, or any of the other big-boy leagues whose basketball heritage took a beating Sunday.
The selection committee took only three teams from the Southeastern Conference, only because Mississippi upset Florida in the SEC tournament championship game. Had chalk prevailed, it’s likely the SEC contingent would’ve been down to regular-season champion Florida (a No. 3 seed) and an enigmatic Missouri team that might survive Colorado State on Thursday and won’t play within 20 points of top overall seed Louisville on Saturday.
As for defending national champion Kentucky? Sorry, but these aren’t the Oscars or the Grammys, where stars denied nominations often are compensated with lifetime achievement awards. The selection committee denied the Wildcats an at-large bid, but gave one to Middle Tennessee State of the Sun Belt Conference. The Blue Raiders will take on Saint Mary’s, three-time losers to WCC rival Gonzaga, in the play-in round.
When Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama are missing out on at-large bids granted to Middle Tennessee State and Saint Mary’s, consider it evidence of a power conference’s dwindling sway with the selection committee.
The committee gave four at-large bids to the Pacific-12 Conference, which is three more than it gave the Pac-12 last year. But check out those lowly seeds: Oregon, which won the conference tournament and tied for second in the regular season, was assigned the 12th seed in the Midwest. California is also a No. 12, though with a caveat: The Bears figure to enjoy a home-court edge in San Jose, where they’ll take on UNLV.
Arizona, ranked 18th in last week’s Associated Press poll, drew a No. 6 seed, as did regular-season champion UCLA, which won’t get a chance to stay home in Los Angeles for the West Region semifinals. The Bruins are a sixth seed in the South, awaiting a 40-minute headache against Minnesota.
A subplot theme of the selection show Sunday — beyond the dissing of Miami and the ACC — was the committee’s tepid evaluation of Pac-12 basketball. (Perhaps the selectors don’t subscribe to cable packages hooked up with the Pac-12 Network. On second thought, maybe they do. UCLA, without injured guard Jordan Adams, looked like the personification of a sixth seed Saturday night against Oregon.)
As for Gonzaga, accustomed to the annual tournament seeding perceived as a slight, Sunday offered a different vibe: A selection committee smitten with the Zags.
“Gonzaga gets everybody’s best shot when they show up,” Bobinski said. “In our judgment, that’s a very complete and very strong basketball team.”
How does this very complete and very strong team succeed without wearing a chip on its shoulder?
My hunch: It will be fine, because the we’re-up-against-the-world mentality has produced mixed results: One game away from Final Four in 1999, but a lot of unnecessary grousing in 2002, when Gonzaga, despite its 29-3 record, was made a No. 6 seed.
Instead of concentrating on Wyoming, the Zags concentrated on the committee’s reluctance to acknowledge them with a more noble seeding.
Wyoming 73, Gonzaga 66.
Every No. 1 seed has won its NCAA tournament opener, and Mark Few’s team will continue that trend against Southern University. Then it gets interesting, a matchup against the Pitt-Wichita State winner potentially followed by Wisconsin for a berth in the regional semifinals.
If Gonzaga doesn’t make it to Los Angeles, it will be a disappointment. Heck, if Gonzaga doesn’t make out of Los Angeles and on to Atlanta for the Final Four, it will be a disappointment.
But the WCC champion Bulldogs are due a day or two of gloating, and to savor the sweet reality that they are a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and Kentucky is an afterthought in the NIT.
A moment of silence, please, for the Wildcats, and for the sullied reputation of college basketball’s power conferences.
OK, the moment is done.
Let’s dance.john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com