Zags, as the last unbeaten: Cue the bouquets and the brickbats
01-12-17

Now it begins. Now comes the praise and the scrutiny, the hosannas and the criticism.

About the time West Virginia forced top-ranked Baylor into its fourth gazillionth turnover Tuesday night in Morgantown, knocking the Bears out of their unbeaten distinction, the focus began tilting toward Spokane. Gonzaga is now the only Division I unbeaten, a status that confers, well, nothing really, but it does guarantee the nation’s sporting interest.

Who knows how long it might last? The expiration date could be as early as Thursday night at home against Loyola Marymount, it could be two nights later with savvy Saint Mary’s. It could stretch into February. It could even be a sizzling national story into mid-March, just as Wichita State’s was in 2014.

It’s not as though Gonzaga isn’t used to the spotlight. The Zags elbowed their way into it with their first forays deep into the NCAA tournament in 1999-2001. Adam Morrison’s unforgettable 2006 season augured more of it. And in 2013, GU earned its first No. 1 poll ranking.

For Gonzaga, this particular unbeaten-the-longest niche is a new one. The Zags have stretched their season-starting winning streak (15) longer than at any point in history, and this one is good enough to have outlasted the rest of the country.

So now, they’re going to know what could be an unprecedented media barrage, especially if the stainless streak continues to have legs. That would only be intensified by the fact the college football season is now over.

These will be among the story lines: Przemek Karnowski, bedridden no more and better than ever. How the transfers have meshed, and how Gonzaga seems to add them without damaging chemistry. Zach Collins and Killian Tillie, proficient bigs whose presence means there’s still considerable upside to this team. And inevitably: Is this Gonzaga’s best team?

For Zag fans, it won’t all be seashells and balloons. There will be the questions about whether Gonzaga finally has the chops to get to the third weekend of the NCAA tournament, or whether there’s a crashing disappointment out there. And there will be some carping about the ease of negotiating the West Coast Conference schedule.

That’s not undeserved. Surely it would be a stretch to think Gonzaga could plow through the ACC or Big Ten schedule for too long, undefeated. But it’s unfair to blame the Zags for being a part of the WCC, when the alternatives are just about non-existent. And their non-league schedule produced wins over Florida (No. 3 in the RPI rankings), Arizona (15), Akron (58), Iowa State (61) and Tennessee (67).

What sort of effect might the added media focus have on Gonzaga’s performance? It’s hard to see that any WCC gym would be any more amped to upend the Zags than they have been for years. And I could see Gonzaga, if it were to remain unbeaten for a long time, taking on the challenge of keeping the thing going.

One could argue that the dual pressure of being ranked No. 1 in 2013 and having a No. 1 seed created a burden that GU couldn’t manage. It never really played well that year after it was voted No. 1, nearly falling victim to a 1-versus-16 upset by Southern in the NCAA tournament and then getting ambushed by Wichita State.

Tommy Lloyd, the longtime GU assistant, didn’t seem especially concerned about the fishbowl that could await the Zags now.

“We have a lot of new guys, but it’s a pretty mature group,” he told me Wednesday. “Our goal isn’t what our current record is, our goals are ahead of us. We’ve got to keep moving forward. We’re coaching to get better every day, we’re not coaching to maintain, that’s for sure.

“We’ve kind of been off the grid, so to speak, a little bit. If the spotlight comes, we’ll deal with it. But we’re not sitting around talking about being undefeated.”

That’s a good thing. But a lot of other people will be doing it for them.


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