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Salt Lake City’s complicated relationship with the Gonzaga Bulldogs

The Zags’ peskiest opponent of the first weekend might come out of the stands.

NCAA Basketball: Washington at Gonzaga
John Stockton watches Gonzaga demolish Washington earlier this season.
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

History and proximity (it’s just over an hour by plane) connect Gonzaga and Salt Lake City. But that doesn’t mean the fans in Salt Lake will be rooting for the team from Spokane.

The Gonzaga Bulldogs (32-1) were given the 1 seed in the West Region of the NCAA Tournament. They’ll take on the 16 seed South Dakota State Jackrabbits (18-16) of the Summit League on Thursday at Vivint Smart Home Arena. It’s a venue and a group of hometown fans the Zags are familiar with, and at the WCC Tournament, head coach Mark Few shed some light on his willingness to play in front of them once again.

"If they want to cheer for us this year,” Few said, “if they did that crap they did last time, no."

In the home of the Utah Jazz, there wasn’t much love for the college that gave them 19 years of John Stockton.

As a 1 seed in 2013, the Zags landed in Salt Lake for the first weekend of the tournament. No 16 has ever defeated a 1, but Southern put a real scare into the Zags in their opener. Fans were rooting for an upset in that one, and then again when Wichita State actually pulled it off in the Second Round.

Pulling for an upset isn’t the only factor at work here, though.

Conference rival BYU is located just 45 miles down the road in Provo. The University of Utah, which Gonzaga knocked out of the 2016 NCAA Tournament in the Second Round, is in Salt Lake. And this season, the Zags’ arch-rival, the 7 seed Saint Mary’s Gaels (28-4), will also play its first two games in Salt Lake.

Throw in the South Dakota State fans who make the trip and that gives you four fanbases in one place, all of which have reason to root against the Zags.

But while the Gaels will be in town, they won’t get a shot at Gonzaga. Since Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s have played three times this season, the rules dictate that the teams cannot meet until the Elite Eight.

Should that fourth meeting happen, it would happen in San Jose. And that’s another city surrounded by fanbases with plenty of reasons to root against the Zags.