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NCAA Tournament: Will No. 1 Gonzaga come to Salt Lake City?

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Gonzaga's coach Mark Few, left, celebrates with his team after their West Coast Conference Championship win in an NCAA college basketball game against Portland, Saturday, March 2, 2013, in Spokane, Wash. Gonzaga defeated Portland 81-52. (AP Photo/Jed Conklin)

By Jay Drew

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Mar 16 2013 04:07PM
Updated May 31, 2013 11:35PM

Thanks to those lucrative conference tournaments muddying the waters once again, a lot of questions in men’s college basketball that were seemingly clear a week ago won’t be answered until the unveiling of the NCAA Tournament bracket on Sunday.

But one part of the Big Dance’s makeup should already be fairly certain: The top-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs will be a No. 1 seed for the first time in school history.

"We pretty much aced it, except maybe an out-of-bounds play at Butler and maybe 5-10 minutes of the [loss] to Illinois," Zags coach Mark Few said when asked whether his team had done enough to earn a top seed. "Everything else, we controlled what we [could] control. It’s in somebody else’s hands."

And the Zags most likely will be dancing in Salt Lake City.

For the second time in four years, EnergySolutions Arena will play host to NCAA Tournament games. The home of the NBA’s Utah Jazz will host four second-round games on Thursday and two third-round games on Saturday, after being the site of the West regional semifinals and finals in 2010.

The tournament selection committee will send Gonzaga (31-2) to SLC if it has any sense of the ties that the Zags have to this community. First, there’s a statue on the ESA pavilion of the father of one of Gonzaga’s key contributors, David Stockton. That would be NBA Hall of Famer John Stockton.

Two of Few’s assistant coaches, Ray Giacoletti and Donny Daniels, coached just up the road at the University of Utah, which is the official host. And Gonzaga’s arena, formally known as the McCarthey Athletic Center, was funded by two brothers from Salt Lake City, Tom and Phil McCarthey. Their family once owned The Salt Lake Tribune.

Las Vegas may be Gonzaga South, but Salt Lake City isn’t far behind.

"I want to say this, Zag Nation," Few said to the thousands of fans wearing Zags attire after the 65-51 win at Orleans Arena. "You are strong. Unbelievable. You have to go with us all the way to either Salt Lake or San Jose. We need you, and we love you."

Which No. 16 seed will the Zags face in SLC? Most prognosticators say either Western Kentucky (20-15), champions of the Sun Belt Conference, or James Madison (20-14), which won the Colonial Athletic Association.

"I think it is going to be hard for all of us that first weekend — one seed, two seed, it’s going to be hard for everybody," Few said. "It’s that kind of year."

Other teams that might be headed here, according to ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi, are Illinois, Oregon, Arizona and Michigan. An Illinois-Gonzaga rematch would be interesting.

Many local basketball fans wouldn’t mind seeing Ole Miss — which will play Florida on Sunday in the SEC championship game — find its way to SLC if only because the Rebels feature colorful, trash-talking guard Marshall Henderson, a former Ute.

A lot of teams around college basketball — such as bubble-sitting Saint Mary’s — breathed a little easier when Utah’s Cinderella run came to an end Friday night in Las Vegas, the Utes falling short of becoming a bid-stealer by two games.

Bubble-watching notwithstanding, there’s intrigue as well on the other side of the bracket, thanks to some conference tournament upsets. Will Indiana be the top seed overall and head to the Midwest Region despite losing 68-56 to Wisconsin in the Big Ten semifinals on Saturday?

Did Duke’s early exit in the ACC tourney cost it a No. 1 seed in the East? And did Louisville’s run in the Big East Tournament get it to the top line in the South Region?

The answers come Sunday.

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