Zags appear poised for another look at the penthouse
01-26-17

If Gonzaga does what appears almost inevitable -- beats San Diego and Pepperdine this weekend to remain undefeated -- then Zag fans ought to indulge themselves in the moment. Step outside, breathe in the fresh air (even if it might be freezing fog in the Inland Empire). Pour yourself a nice whiskey on the rocks or your favorite IPA.

You’re about to be ranked No. 1 again.

Think about that.

For the second time in four years, Gonzaga should rise to the top of the polls next week. Sure, No. 1 is an issue of debate and without doubt, GU, once it’s positioned in the top 10, has an easier road to the top in the mostly cushy West Coast Conference. All true.

It might not happen, if some of Tuesday night's craziness persists. Kansas may beat Kentucky and thus get more love from the pollsters. There could be skepticism over Gonzaga's resume.

But if it happens, it’s remarkable. It was remarkable when it happened the first time, with the 2013 team early in March that year, and it might be just as remarkable again, doing it with a roster that’s entirely turned over from that ’13 team, save for center Przemek Karnowski and deep sub Rem Bakamus.
Karnowski averaged 11 minutes in 2013.

When I asked ex-Zags coach Dan Monson -- on the eve of the 2013 team’s elevation to No. 1 -- whether he had ever envisioned something like that in the long, laborious runup to the good times at Gonzaga, he said, “No. We had a lot of beers together, but we never had that many.”

What it reflects is what the whole length and breadth of the Gonzaga phenomenon of this millennium reflects: That the Zags weren’t going away, that they were going to keep knocking at the door, that they were going to continue to be a big player in college hoops. At that, to be judged No. 1, even if it’s fleeting, even if it comes with qualifications, bespeaks a higher level of respect, acclamation and accomplishment.

Now: If it happens, can Gonzaga flourish under those circumstances? The 2013 team never really played to that ranking, struggling in its WCC-tournament opener against Loyola Marymount, narrowly beating No. 16 seed Southern in the first game of the NCAA tournament and then getting ousted by a brassy Wichita State team in the round of 32.

Soon, if Gonzaga (20-0) keeps winning, it will hear the old refrain: It’s better to get a loss before March. Somebody like BYU (next week) or Saint Mary’s (Feb. 11) could take care of that anyway. But it’s a conundrum without solution; are you supposed to lose on purpose to release the pressure valve on the burden that comes with being undefeated?

Random other late-January considerations:

-- The isolated speculation that Gonzaga might not get a No. 1 seed if it goes undefeated through the WCC tournament is ludicrous. True, the field of really good teams -- and candidates for top seeds -- seems deeper this year. But you can take this one to the bank -- the Zags don't get snubbed for a top seed if they go undefeated. Gonzaga is 6-0 against the top 52 teams in the RPI. In fact, without knowing what’s to come, I’m of the opinion that a one-loss Gonzaga team probably still gets a No. 1 seed. For what it’s worth (and every year is different), GU was a two-loss team when it picked off a top seed in ’13.

-- A battle, perhaps unprecedented, looms among Western teams for a No. 1 seed in the West. That pits Gonzaga, UCLA (19-2), Oregon and Arizona (both 18-2). The Bruins, No. 1-ranked in KenPom offensive efficiency but only 128th in defense, have a huge win at Kentucky. Oregon hosts Arizona Feb. 4 and travels to UCLA on Feb. 9 in a major five-day, two-game test. ‘Zona’s rematch of its win at UCLA comes Feb. 25.

The Wildcats should expect the NCAA basketball committee not to give them any breaks for what happened during Allonzo Trier’s suspension; that’s not judged as an injury, but something he brought upon himself.

And what’s the significance of a No. 1 seed, and staying in the West? Besides the presumed competitive advantage, the West region host is San Jose, and the next-nearest are Kansas City and Memphis.

-- The committee announced this week it will reveal on Feb. 11 its current top 16 seeds. I suppose that’s a nod to the old maxim that February tends to be a dull sports month, once the Super Bowl has taken place. And no doubt it will be a conversation piece for several days. But given the fluidity of the sport -- witness the losses by the Nos. 1-, 2- and 4-ranked teams Tuesday night -- the rankings of those seeds will be highly disposable, probably even a week out. And Selection Sunday won’t come until 29 days later.


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