John McGrath

John McGrath: Arizona hurdle only thing keeping Gonzaga from Final Four

The First Commandment of organized sports holds that games are to be taken one at a time. The discipline to take games one at a time is in conjunction with the Second Commandment of organized sports, which is never to get too high or too low.

But when the NCAA tournament bracket was revealed Sunday, it was difficult — OK, impossible — for Gonzaga fans to resist overlooking the team’s first-round opponent, South Dakota State.

Gonzaga was awarded the No. 1 seed in the West Region. South Dakota State got in as a No. 16 seed. Since the tournament expanded to a field of 64 in 1985, never has a No. 1 seed lost to a No. 16 seed.

A 32-year-old body of history might not qualify as ancient, but it’s substantial enough to assure the Zags will advance to a second-round game against either Northwestern or Vanderbilt. If it’s Northwestern, Gonzaga will play before a crowd partial to the Wildcats, NCAA tournament participants for the first time.

No problem for the Zags, who are undefeated outside Spokane. They’ll move on to the Sweet 16 round in San Jose, where one of four opponents — Notre Dame, Princeton, West Virginia or Bucknell — will challenge them for the right to compete in the regional final.

Arizona likely will advance to the regional final as well, which is to say everything Gonzaga has accomplished this season — the 32 victories, the regular season and conference tournament championships, the anticipated but still celebrated No. 1 seed in the West — soon will be on the line.

It’s a lot of baggage to put on the shoulders of college athletes, but to pretend otherwise is to deny the obvious. This is the best team in school history. The time has come for Gonzaga to add to that history by finally reaching the Final Four.

No more talk about how knocking on the door gives them hope of barging through the door next season. No more first-minute jitters or last-minute meltdowns. No more excuses.

For Gonzaga, the bracket sets up as three winnable tuneups against clearly inferior opponents, followed by the showdown that will define the legacy of head coach Mark Few.

If the Zags eliminate Arizona, nothing will go wrong in the Final Four, for the simple reason nothing can go wrong in the Final Four. They’ll have cleared the obstacle that annually has impeded them since Dan Monson’s 1999 team got bounced from the West Regional final by eventual national champion Connecticut.

Gonzaga was a 10th seed, an appealing underdog that millions of Americans embraced while mispronouncing the second syllable of the school’s three-syllable name. But dominating a mid-major conference for almost two decades — regarding Selection Sunday as a mid-March ritual — has turned former GU bandwagon riders into cynics.

During a panel discussion on the CBS selection show broadcast Sunday, Charles Barkley pointed out the perils of attempting to beat an elite team twice in one season. Barkley’s premise is valid: Gonzaga faced Arizona in the inaugural Hoophall LA tournament on Dec. 3 and won, 69-62. The Wildcats will be on a payback mission presumably armed with a different game plan.

In Los Angeles, the Zags’ Przemek Karnowski took advantage of single coverage and tossed in baby hooks at will. The big guy finished with 18 points, and Josh Perkins, Nigel Williams-Goss and Jordan Mathews joined him in double-figures.

But the Arizona team that got behind Gonzaga early, and stayed behind, is not the same Arizona team that beat Oregon for the Pac-12 tournament championship on Saturday night. Star sophomore guard Allonzo Trier was not eligible to play against the Zags — he’d been suspended 19 games for a performance-enhancing drug violation — but since the suspension was lifted, Trier has looked like an unstoppable force.

His 23-point, eight-rebound effort against the Ducks earned him tournament MVP honors. Between Trier’s return and Arizona’s inclination to exact revenge, Gonzaga will be tested in a way it hasn’t been tested.

Can the Zags prevail? Of course they can. Their average victory margin this season is 23.4 points — the most by any college team since Duke was obliterating opponents by an average of 24.7 points in 1999-2000.

Gonzaga’s No. 1 seed resume was bolstered by nonconference victories over the likes of Florida (a No. 4 seed in the East) and Iowa State (a No. 5 seed in the Midwest). Most impressive is a three-game sweep against Saint Mary’s, installed as a No. 7 seed in the West.

A legitimate top 20 team, the Gaels own a 28-4 record that’s 28-1 without their struggles against Gonzaga.

Monday looms as a take-a-deep-breath-and-fill-in-the-bracket exercise, with the usual suspects — Villanova, North Carolina, Kentucky, Duke — figuring to survive for a week or two.

But my attention is on the West, and the regional final game between Gonzaga and Arizona. That’s the delicious heart of the artichoke.

Everything else is leaf tips, drenched in mayonnaise.

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