A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away . . .
There was this nice, charming underdog story called Gonzaga, renowned for occasionally making trouble for the big boys. The pests from the West. But that version went out with payphones, eons ago. The brutes from Spokane slapped around the Duke kids last week — with one of their best players still injured and on the shelf. They’re averaging 97 points, shooting 53.1 percent — 120 points higher than their opponents — and have blocked 40 shots, including four in the last 46 seconds against Duke. The Blue Devils had trailed 35 seconds all season. Gonzaga led them for 37 minutes and 58 seconds.
Cinderella, that ain’t.
But have the Zags ever been quite this mighty? Look at Monday's newest Associated Press rankings and they’re the new No. 1, slipping past Kansas. No. 1 in Maui, No. 1 on the mainland, No. 1 everywhere. They’ve been at the top of the polls before — twice — but somehow, this time, they look so … at home.
“They’re strong, they’re old, and they’re unselfish and they play their butts off,” said Mike Krzyzewski, after the Zags had turned the Maui Invitational into their private luau. No wonder, Gonzaga has become the flavor of the week in college basketball, its vast March potential already a hot topic. Which has coach Mark Few citing the parable of Villanova.
“My good, good buddy Jay Wright, I think he used the term 'we got to stay away from the poison,' last year when his guys moved up and were No. 1 early in the season, and what a phenomenal job they did. They just kept their eye on the prize and kept getting better and better, and their culture was so strong. So we got to learn from them and follow that lesson.”
That’s why things are about to get so interesting at Gonzaga, who likely will be 7-0 after Monday night’s home game with North Dakota State.
Consider the first 15 days in December: Four games against teams from four elite conferences who, as of Monday, were a combined 19-5.
First, the Zags go to Creighton, and the woods are full of teams who can testify about the perils of visiting Omaha in the winter. Next, Gonzaga hosts Washington and meets Tennessee in Phoenix, with state pride at stake in one, and a chance to beat another top-10 team in the other. Finally, on Dec. 15, there’s the trip to North Carolina. Last time, these two teams shared a court, the Bulldogs were chasing the Tar Heels to the wire in the 2017 national championship game.
If Gonzaga is still unbeaten when all that’s over, would there be a more imposing resume in the land? The Zags have owned the West Coast Conference, lock, stock and San Andreas Fault. But this is a non-league gauntlet.
So now would be the time for a little Gonzaga Did You Know.
Did you know …
That you can only hope your car tires are as balanced as the Zags? They’ve had at least three players score in double figures in 77 of their last 82 games, and four in double figures all six games this season? Eight different players have scored at least 10 points in a game, and 6-10 returning starter Killian Tillie hasn’t even hit the court yet. Have fun guarding them.
That they’ve come from far and wide to make Gonzaga a nouveau blueblood? The roster lists 11 American-born players, from 11 different states. Plus four more from three different nations. Rui Hachimura, last seen putting up 20 points against Duke and being named MVP in Maui, became only the fifth Japan native male to play Division I basketball.
🚨 FIRST EVER NET RANKINGS 🚨— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) November 26, 2018
1. Ohio State
3. Texas Tech
7. Michigan State
9. Virginia Tech
10. Loyola Marymount
FULL Rankings 1-353:
👉 https://t.co/sx7FOdytf5 pic.twitter.com/XQtckLdtCi
That the Bulldogs had never beaten Duke? Until now. And never beaten a top-ranked team? Until now. While we’re on the subject of unusual feats, their 94-71 thrashing of Texas A&M was their biggest victory margin ever over an SEC opponent, and their 120 and 108 points in the first two games against Idaho State and Texas Southern marked the first time in 18 years they had broken 100 in back-to-back games.
That the win over Duke came on the 19th anniversary of Mark Few’s first game as Gonzaga coach? The Zags were in Missoula for his debut in 1999 and beat Montana 76-61. There have been 540 more victories since then.
That Gonzaga has won 24 consecutive conference road games? Longest streak in the nation.
That they opened McCarthey Athletic Center — capacity 6,000 — in 2004, and there hasn’t been an unsold ticket for a home game yet?
That Gonzaga has been to the Sweet 16 four consecutive years? Try to find anyone else who can say that. There isn’t. And the Zags have won their NCAA first round game 10 years in a row, which only Kansas can match.
That Gonzaga went 23-11 in 2007, which was Few’s worst season?
That most of this team wasn’t born the last time Gonzaga did not play in the WCC tournament championship game? The Bulldogs have been there 21 years in a row.
That Josh Perkins is now a senior leader for the Bulldogs and his career record at last count was 107-15?
That Brandon Clarke already has 24 blocked shots, more than a third of the way to the school record of 70, after only six games?
You get the idea. Gonzaga has made a move on No. 1 and absolutely nobody is surprised. The intrigue is what happens next.
You get the idea. Gonzaga is No. 1, and absolutely nobody should be surprised. The intrigue is what happens next.