The West Coast Conference, often lightly regarded in national circles, has made an early splash in the college basketball world.
That’s commonplace for Gonzaga, which returned to the national rankings at No. 17 in the Associated Press poll after winning the Maui Invitational last week. In the title game, Gonzaga edged Cincinnati, which also cracked the AP poll at No. 22. The Bulldogs have been in the rankings every season since 2001-02.
“I think we shouldn’t worry about the ranking too much,” freshman forward Elias Harris said. “We need to play ball like we did before. The ranking is just a number.”
Portland made its first appearance in the AP poll in 50 years. The 25th-ranked Pilots routed UCLA and knocked off then-No. 22 Minnesota before falling in the 76 Classic title game to West Virginia, which climbed up one spot to No. 7.
“It is good to be on the national radar,” Portland coach Eric Reveno said. “We worked hard to get here so we should embrace the attention, but we’ll know by the end of the season if it is truly deserved.”
The WCC is 9-6 against schools from BCS conferences. Saint Mary’s is receiving votes in the ESPN/USA Today poll. San Diego, under ex-GU assistant Bill Grier, has wins over Stanford, Houston (preseason No. 2 in Conference USA), and former No. 25 Oklahoma. The Toreros took second at the Great Alaska Shootout to Washington State, which, incidentally, received votes in both polls.
“If you want to be looked upon favorably at the end of the year, you have to play a tough schedule,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “If all you do is play home games or patsies, you can’t be asking for favors at the end of the year.
“It’s really neat for Eric and Portland to be able to get into a tournament like Anaheim and make some noise and show everybody what a good team they have. I thought they were a very good team last year. They were one of the main reasons why we weren’t very good against Memphis (two days after winning at Portland). It took everything out of us and trying to explain that to people nationally, I think they laughed, but I think now they understand.”
An A for D
The Bulldogs have played primarily man-to-man defense, but their zone has been effective, particularly against Colorado and Cincinnati.
“It was better,” Few said. “We spent a good practice day on it in Maui; let’s just try to fix that because we’re going to have to use it. Some of our veterans are helping us out more and Elias is getting a better understanding of it.”
Sand, sun and water
The Zags spent Thanksgiving Day in Maui. More accurately, they spent it in the ocean.
“That last day we went as hard as you can go in a day in Maui,” senior guard Matt Bouldin said. “We were in the water until 1 or 2, ate (lunch) and we were right back out there for another few hours. We cliff-jumped, saw turtles, dolphins, supposedly there was a whale out there.”
Steven Gray didn’t go surfing, his pre-tournament goal, because “I was far too tired. But I did go into the water a little bit, spent some time on the beach walking around and checking out the sights.”
Sophomore forward Bol Kong played in the final two games of the tournament. He made his biggest impact against Wisconsin, scoring five points in 10 minutes. The 6-foot-7 Kong saw time at power forward.
“It’s so hard getting minutes behind those two wings (Bouldin and Gray),” Few said.
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