by Dan Hauptman
In each of the last three NCAA Tournaments, the Gonzaga Bulldogs have advanced to at least the Sweet 16. Only Michigan State and Duke have accomplished this feat the past three years, something that speaks volumes about the success of the West Coast Conference team from Spokane, WA. One would think that this history, as well as the stellar play of Mark Few’s team this season, would propel the Bulldogs to at least a top four seed this time around. Obviously, the selection committee does not think this way, as Gonzaga is seeded an insulting sixth in the West region of the 2002 Big Dance.
This seeding trend has been quite evident in the 1999, 2000 and 2001 Tournaments, as Gonzaga was seeded 10th, 10th and then 12th in the respective championships. Why? Maybe it is because of the mid-major conference that the Bulldogs play in. Maybe it is because they play their games late at night in the middle of Washington, with very few selection committee members staying up to watch the exciting squad compete. Maybe it is the bias that the committee has shown through the years to teams playing in the six major conferences (ACC, SEC, Big East, Big 12, Big 10, Pac 10). Whatever the reason, there are questions of respect, or lack of, that need to be answered by the nine men and a woman on the selection staff.
This year, the Bulldogs had the best regular season in their history, as Gonzaga won a school-record 29 games and only lost three contests, all to Tournament teams (Illinois, Marquette and Pepperdine). Also, the school won its last 14 games, including capturing its fourth consecutive West Coast Conference tournament title with a 96-90 win against Pepperdine. No school lost fewer overall games than Gonzaga did, and the same holds true at home, as star guard Dan Dickau capped a perfect home career by winning every contest at the Kennel this season. There was very little that this squad could have done during the 32-game season to be more desirable in the committee’s eyes.
But evidently there was a whole lot more that Few’s team could have done, as according to the powers-that-be, this top ten team did not deserve to be in the top 20 in the field of 65. Also, Gonzaga was placed in perhaps the toughest region in the entire Tournament. The West bracket contains Conference USA winner Cincinnati (No. 1 seed), Big 12 champion Oklahoma (No. 2), Pac 10 crown-wearer Arizona (No. 3) and Big 10 title-holder Ohio State (No. 4). The road to the regionals in San Jose will undoubtedly be difficult, but as was the case in years past, expect the Bulldogs to be among the final 16 teams, maybe even playing in Atlanta as one of the last four teams alive. Think of it as poetic justice.
Unlike many others, I actually don’t mind the new “pod” system of assigning games, but there are some examples that clearly do not make any sense. Take UCLA, the No. 8 seed in the West region has to travel across the country to play its first two rounds in Pittsburgh, PA. Similarly with Cal, which is in the South bracket yet has to fly from Berkeley to Pennsylvania to play its first couple of games.
Most intriguing first round matchup: No.10 Michigan State vs. No.7 North Carolina State. As Jason Drucker writes in his region preview, this game has “Classic” written all over it.
Worst seed with the best chance at winning a game: No.15 Hampton vs. No. 2 Connecticut. Just ask the Iowa State Cyclones, which lost to 15th-seeded Hampton in last year’s first round.
Sleeper, besides Gonzaga: Kent State. In the last six Tournaments, a double-digit seed has advanced to the Sweet 16. The 10th-seeded Golden Flashes may be this year’s representative.