SALT LAKE CITY — It’s always a crapshoot for cities hosting the NCAA Tournament games as to which schools the NCAA committee will send their way.
You might get schools from the other side of the country that no one’s ever heard of, or a big-name school having a so-so year or a team that plays a dull style of basketball.
We didn’t find out until the final brackets were announced Sunday afternoon, but you have to say Salt Lake, which has hosted more NCAA games than any city in America except for Kansas City, came out pretty well this year.
The nation’s No. 1 team is coming to town along with a couple of very familiar schools from neighboring states, a Big East school, an Ivy League school, a Midwestern school along with a pair of schools from the South that few folks have heard of. OK, you can’t have everything.
Topping the list is Gonzaga, which comes into the tournament ranked No. 1 in the nation, the first time that’s happened for Salt Lake since 1990 when No. 1 UNLV was assigned to the Salt Lake regional.
Gonzaga started off the season beating Southern Utah by 38 points and along the way defeated BYU by 20 at home and by five points in Provo.
The Zags don’t look like your typical No. 1 team. Two of their best players, Kelly Olynyk and Kevin Pangos, are Canadians, and another, Elias Harris, is from Germany, while another starter for half the games this year, Guy Landry Edi, hails from Ivory Coast.
One of the top reserves is David Stockton, who happens to be the son of former Jazz great John Stockton, who will try to get some good vibes from playing in the same building where his father became a legend.
Unlike in 2011 when the NCAA Regionals were played at the EnergySolutions Arena, all things Jazz-related won’t be hidden from view. That means John Stockton’s retired number along with the banners showing his NBA records for assists and steals will be there for all to see, including the Zags.
Young Stockton isn’t a star of the team and has started just one game this year. But he does lead the team in two categories — wouldn’t you know it — assists and steals.
Two other teams local fans are quite familiar with are New Mexico and Arizona, which have the most loyal and rambunctious fans in their respective conferences.
The Lobos made annual appearances in Utah for more than 50 years until last year when their longtime opponents — Utah and BYU — left them behind for other conferences. The Lobos were the top team in the Cougars’ and Utes’ former conference both in the regular season and tournament and could have a legitimate shot at making it to the Final Four.
They’ll have to get past Arizona, which is looming as a second-round matchup as the No. 6 seed in the West. The Wildcats played in Salt Lake just a month ago, having a tough time getting past a pesky Ute team.
Arizona will be playing for the fifth time in an NCAA Tournament game in Salt Lake, more than any other school. The Wildcats were a No. 2 seed in 1991 when they won both games, including a second-round win over BYU and freshman Shawn Bradley in his only year as a Cougar. In 1993, the Wildcats were also a No. 2 seed and ranked No. 5 in the country when they came to the Huntsman Center to face little-known Santa Clara, led by Canadian point guard Steve Nash and were shocked 64-61.
In 2000 and 2003, the Wildcats were tournament No. 1 seeds and easily got past Jackson State and Vermont, respectively. In the ’03 tourney, they had one of the more memorable games ever at the Huntsman Center when they beat Gonzaga 96-95 in overtime to advance to the Sweet 16.
The best game could be the Pitt-Wichita State game, as 8 vs. 9 games usually are. The Panthers have a 28-point win at Georgetown to their credit, while the Shockers are a well-balanced team from the Missouri Valley Conference that has flown under the radar much of the year.
Belmont is a private Christian university located in Nashville, Tenn., with just over 5,000 undergraduates. They used to be known as the Rebels until that became politically incorrect and are now called the Bruins.
These Bruins could be the dark horse in the Salt Lake Eight, having won at Stanford in the preseason and also at VCU, an NCAA No. 5 seed. Arizona had better be ready or it could be making an early exit.
Harvard is best known for being Jeremy Lin’s alma mater, but last year the Crimson made their first NCAA Tournament since 1946. This year they lost two captains to a cheating scandal and weren’t expected to fare as well, but came through with another title.
Finally there’s Southern U., which played in Salt Lake back in 1985 as a No. 16 seed against No. 1 St. John’s. Don’t count on an upset by the Jaguars from Baton Rouge, who barely got by a 15-19 Prairie View A&M team, 45-44, to get into the tournament.
It should be a fun week, and by Saturday, we should have a classic matchup between neighbors New Mexico and Arizona in one game and Gonzaga and Pitt in the other for the right to go to the NCAA Sweet 16. If Belmont or Wichita State spring an upset, it means the tournament is that much more exciting.
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