Zags now left to their own (considerable) devices

For Gonzaga basketball fans, it was an unusually enlightening Saturday. The Zags learned all sorts of things, starting with the morning’s annual basketball-committee bracket top-16 reveal, and ending with the obliteration of a good Saint Mary’s team 10 hours later in Moraga.

In the morning, Gonzaga discovered it has an edge on San Diego State, even as the Aztecs are undefeated, and that means it’s only logical the Zags will maintain that edge if they don’t lose before Selection Sunday. By night, we saw what a focused, healthy (or what passes for healthy in this gimpy season) Zags team is capable of.

Oh yes, the day reinforced something else. It appears that whatever’s out there for Gonzaga on Selection Sunday March 15 – seed, site, bracket quadrant – the Zags are going it alone.

Maybe there’s been another year when the most prized victims of November and December went so collectively south on Gonzaga, but I can’t recall it.

You know the drill: In the Zags’ “inverted” schedule – tough non-conference followed by a less rugged WCC – they do what business they can, and then hope those vanquished acquit themselves well as the season plays out, the more to burnish Gonzaga’s resume. Most years, it seems to me, what passed for quality wins before Christmas have stood up, often gaining greater resonance. As in 2003-04, when Maryland, a Zag victim, was limping along at 14-11 late in the season, trying merely to mount the NCAA bubble, when suddenly it blew through the ACC tournament victorious, all the way to a No. 4 seed in the NCAAs.

(Of course, at the other end there was 2001-02, when St. Joseph’s – ranked No. 10 in the preseason – and Fresno State seemed like major conquests, but each receded from prominence, fell out of the rankings, and on a sobering Selection Sunday, No. 6-ranked Gonzaga got a No. 6 seed.)

Opponent-wise, this year is looking something like 2002. Oregon, Washington, Arizona, North Carolina – meh.

The Ducks are sort of mucking through the season, overly dependent on Payton Pritchard and unconvincing up front. Against the 199th-ranked KenPom defense at Oregon State the other night, Oregon scored 53 points to fall to 18-6.

Washington? The Huskies haven’t won since about the last time Donald Trump told the truth. Their fall from grace has been spectacular – a team drawing mention for a Final Four to one that may struggle to get out of the Pac-12 cellar.

Like Oregon, Arizona (16-7) has been something of a fits-and-starts outfit, puzzling in that you’d figure those freshmen would be jelling by now. But the Wildcats were just schooled at home by 13 against UCLA. And North Carolina, well, we knew Carolina was a shell of itself when the Zags won convincingly in December, but just when the Tar Heels were about to salvage some self-esteem Saturday against Duke, they invented all sorts of different ways to lose.

The good news for Gonzaga is, it has enough juice to make it on its own. Obviously, winning will keep GU on the one line, and even another loss might not be fatal to its prospects for a No. 1 seed.

But there’s that developing joust with San Diego State for the top seed in the West – the winner prospectively going to Los Angeles for the regional (barring a complete collapse, GU will start the tournament at Spokane Arena) and the loser having to trek to New York for a second weekend, there possibly to encounter Duke and its second home at Madison Square Garden.

It has to be significant that Gonzaga was judged ahead of SDSU BEFORE its thunderous victory at Saint Mary’s, so whatever the margin was Saturday morning, it’s greater now.

For comparison, San Diego State has a road win at BYU (a challenge looming for Gonzaga Feb. 22) and neutrals over Creighton (by 31) and Iowa, 26th and 18th, respectively, in KenPom rankings. Notwithstanding Arizona’s inconsistency, the Wildcats are still worth a No. 15 KenPom (and No. 10 in the NET) and Oregon is 25th in both metrics.

Where might San Diego State slip up? An old Zag friend, Leon Rice, could help next Sunday at Boise State, and the Aztecs finish the regular season at Nevada Feb. 29.

Much remains to be decided, in Spokane, in San Diego, even in Eugene and Tucson. But by now, the Zags have to know that it’s in their hands. Which, all things considered, isn’t so bad.