The Gonzaga University men’s basketball program stepped up to a whole new level Monday when the Bulldogs moved up to No. 4 in this week’s Associated Press Top 25 rankings.
GU, which has won a school-record 16 consecutive games and has clinched the West Coast Conference regular-season title with two league games remaining, moved up from the No. 6 spot they held in last week’s poll, leapfrogging Duke and Mississippi State, who both lost last week.
The Zags, who weighed in at No. 5 in this week’s USA Today/ESPN coaches poll, are 23-2 overall and 12-0 in the WCC following Saturday’s 76-56 non-conference road win over Tulsa and trail No. 3 Pittsburgh (24-2) by a mere 57 points in the AP rankings.
Stanford (23-0) and Saint Joseph’s (24-0), the only two unbeaten Division-I teams in the country and the only teams to defeat Gonzaga this season, are once again ranked 1-2.
The No. 6 ranking GU held last week had matched their previous high, attained during the final two weeks of the 2001-02 season when they went on to win a school-record 29-games before losing to Wyoming in the opening round the NCAA Tournament.
During Monday afternoon’s practice, most of the Bulldogs players downplayed their latest ranking. But coach Mark Few warned not to read too much into their public reaction.
“For me, it has never been that big of a deal, and, obviously, our staff feels the same way,” said the Bulldogs’ fifth-year coach, who had heard of the rankings change but was not aware of what teams the Zags moved past. “But when we got on the plane after Saturday’s game, our kids were talking about it. They had heard Mississippi State had lost and they were excited, so they’re obviously into it.
“And the other thing is, now they’ve reached kind of a sacred ground where no Gonzaga team before them has ever tread. So they can hold that over (Dan) Dickau, (Casey) Calvary and (John) Stockton.”
With the lofty ranking will undoubtedly come talk of a potential No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
And Few is not reluctant to discuss the possibility, although he points out there are still some big challenges ahead. The Bulldogs play their final two regular-season games against San Diego at 8 p.m. on Thursday and against Santa Clara on 6 p.m. on Saturday.
Those games will mark the final two appearances in The Kennel for the Zags, who are scheduled to move next door to a new 6,000-seat arena next season.
And then there is the WCC tournament, which kicks off next Thursday in Santa Clara.
The top-seeded Bulldogs have earned a bye into the semifinals and won’t play until Sunday. But if they take care of business at home this week, win the tournament and head into Selection Sunday on March 14 with a 27-2 record and a 20-game winning streak, Few sees no reason they can’t expect a No. 1 seed into the NCAAs.
“That would be a huge accomplishment for the program,” he said, “because it takes into account your entire body of work over a whole season. Through all of this run, from a coaching standpoint, you motivate guys that we can do something that’s never, ever been done before.
“That gets harder and harder. But (a No. 1 seed) is something we can motivate our guys with - an accomplishment no one else has ever done here.”
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