Gonzaga opens NCAA tournament against West Virginia in "road game"
No. 7 seed Gonzaga will have to travel to Pittsburgh for its first NCAA tournament game. The Zags' opponent, West Virginia, has a short drive to the game.
Seattle Times colleges reporter
Gonzaga vs. West Virginia at Pittsburgh,
4:20 p.m., TNT
When Gonzaga emerged from nowhere to embark on this whole dreamy ride back in 1999 at KeyArena, the Zags must have marveled at how easy it all seemed: They went to the Elite Eight, propelled by a favorable placement as a No. 10 seed in a city that couldn't get enough of them.
They probably shouldn't have jumped to conclusions.
Tuesday, the Zags get on a plane and fly three time zones east to Pittsburgh. Sometime that day, Bob Huggins' 10th-seeded West Virginia Mountaineers will board a bus and drive an hour and a half north on I-79, and they'll meet No. 7-seeded Gonzaga on Thursday in an East Region game in the Steel City.
"It's a road game," Gonzaga coach Mark Few told me Sunday evening.
Why, this must be the most vivid example of warped NCAA geography since ... since ... Gonzaga was a No. 7 seed in 2008 and journeyed three time zones so they could be the first-round foil for Stephen Curry and Davidson, which was 162 miles from the subregional site in Raleigh, N.C.
"I don't understand it whatsoever," Few said. "I don't understand it, yet I have a ton of empathy with the committee. There are too many things going on to worry about a 7-10."
In a nutshell, Few is exactly right. As one of its bracketing principles, the NCAA aims not to put any of the top-five seed lines at a home-court disadvantage. Which is to say, those teams get a favorable, proximate placement.
After that, all bets are off. After that, you're left to your own devices. Sunday on a conference call, NCAA staffers Greg Shaheen and David Worlock addressed the Gonzaga travel anomaly, pointing out that the Big East has nine entries and bracket principles dictate those can't meet until regional semifinals. And there were other indecipherable reasons.
But it appears it was either going to be Gonzaga or Saint Mary's (which goes to Omaha, Neb., to play Purdue) headed to Pittsburgh, and in that contest, it was fair that Saint Mary's got a better break.
In recent years, the NCAA has refined its process continually, with the pod system so more teams can play close to home, transparency with the bracket, a TV show Sunday clarifying seeding. So what would be a bigger potential injustice — two also-rans from the same conference meeting in a third-round game, or sending a team across the country to play in the Mountaineer Backyard Bucket-Fest and Couch Burn?
It's not like you deserve any favors as a mid-seed. But you also don't warrant getting flogged over the skull by the committee wielding a wooden NCAA logo.
"I think it'll be similar to the Xavier game," said Zags freshman guard Kevin Pangos, downplaying the travel challenge and recalling a New Year's Eve victory in Cincinnati. "I think it'll be more about what we bring as opposed to the atmosphere."
If this is a significant slight, it's less than a deal-breaker. This isn't one of Huggins' best teams — its defensive field-goal percentage is greater than what it shoots — and while it's a challenge, it's not an untenable one for Gonzaga.
In fact, Robert Sacre, the Zags' 7-foot center, is positively panting to play some Big East-style basketball.
"I'm salivating, playing outside the WCC with different officials," Sacre said. "It's going to be a bruiser game. I think both teams know that. I'm not dipping my toe in the water, I'm going full-in, jumping in the pool."
The most obvious concern is the 6-8, 260-pound Mountaineers forward, Kevin Jones, who averages a double-double. He could be too quick for Sacre and too physical for Elias Harris.
"I think we match up just fine," insisted Sacre.
On the court, maybe. Just not with itineraries.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org
About Bud Withers
Bud Withers gives his take on college sports, with the latest from the Huskies, Cougs, and the rest of the Pac-12.
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