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SALT LAKE CITY — The top representative from the “truck stop” league comprised of the Little Sisters of the Poor was again awarded a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
And Bill Walton thinks it’s a joke.
Much to the chagrin of the former UCLA and NBA star, Gonzaga is the top-seeded team in the West, one spot ahead of Arizona. As an analyst for ESPN, Walton spent a considerable amount of time during the Pac-12 tournament championship game between Arizona and Oregon bashing the West Coast Conference, of which Gonzaga once again dominated this season.
Although not nearly as outspoken as Walton, pundits across the country are in his corner. As the No. 2 seed, Arizona is the pick of many to advance out of the West to the Final Four, which will be played in the Arizona Cardinals stadium in the Phoenix area.
"Nothing against Gonzaga," wrote Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times. "The Bulldogs are deserving of the No. 1 seeding and so darn lovable you want to hug the big bearded dude who plays center. But they had only three highly rated wins this season against teams not named Saint Mary’s. Fresh off a season in which they went 32-1 and were ranked No. 1 for several weeks, the Bulldogs will carry a heavy burden going into the tournament. Nobody is doubting that North Carolina, Villanova and Kansas all deserved a No. 1 seed.
“It doesn’t matter what the seed is,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few.
If only that were true.
Truth is, under the theory that perception is reality, the Bulldogs have to prove worthy of the anointed lofty status. And with it comes pressure and expectation. Within the game, the seeds may not mean a lot, but everybody knows which team is the higher seed.
“It doesn’t make much difference,” Few said. “It’s an argument starter, a conversation piece. It literally gets thrown out now. Now, two teams have to play.”
Yet Few remembers well the last time Gonzaga played in the NCAA as a No. 1 seed. The similar situation four years ago didn’t go so well.
In 2013, Gonzaga came to Salt Lake City as a No. 1 seed and promptly lost in the second round after barely surviving the first game. At the West Coast Conference tournament last week, Few complained about the lack of support the fans gave his team the last time it played in Salt Lake City. Few said the Bulldogs would like to come back “if they want to cheer for us this year. If they did that crap they did last time, no.”
Memo to Mark: Be prepared for more, using your word, crap.
For multiple reasons, Gonzaga won’t be treated as that Cinderella team from the truck stop conference. Except for fans of the actual team, nobody roots for a No. 1 seed. Few’s only reference as a top seed came in Salt Lake City, but the crowd would have supported the underdog against Gonzaga in 2013 no matter where the game was played.
Also, Utah’s capital city is full of fans of the University of Utah, which belongs to the Pac-12. With a large contingent expected to make the trip north, fellow Pac-12 member Arizona can count on a huge following in Vivint Arena.
And don’t underestimate the BYU factor. Gonzaga and BYU belong to the WCC, so by extension Utah fans will root against the top seed in this case.
Of course, all that will mean nothing if the Bulldogs play well. But if they don’t, things will get tense. Like the three other top seeds, it is Final Four or bust for the Zags.
“I think we have the pieces to make that deep run, to make the trip to Phoenix,” senior guard Jordan Mathews said on ESPN radio.