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No. 2 Gonzaga faces big challenge

Guard Gary Bell, Jr. and Gonzaga raced away from BYU at the Kennel on Jan. 24. (Colin Mulvany)
Guard Gary Bell, Jr. and Gonzaga raced away from BYU at the Kennel on Jan. 24. (Colin Mulvany)

With top spot in sight, Bulldogs first must handle BYU

PROVO, Utah – There are no guarantees in men’s college basketball this season, as demonstrated by an upset-filled last month.

That applies to No. 2 Gonzaga, which has adeptly sidestepped the Top 10 upset craze to reach the highest Associated Press ranking in program history. After No. 1 Indiana lost to Minnesota on Tuesday, the natural assumption was that Gonzaga was next in line for the top spot.

It’s entirely possible, though the Bulldogs (27-2, 14-0 WCC) first must deal with a serious challenge against BYU (20-9, 9-5) Thursday inside the 20,900-seat Marriott Center. Even with wins Thursday and Saturday against Portland, Gonzaga could get passed by No. 3 Duke, which has dates with Virginia Thursday and No. 5 Miami on Saturday.

Some have suggested Miami could even climb to No. 1 with a spotless week. Indiana lost to Illinois in early February and remained No. 1, but that seems doubtful this time.

“We’ve had a great run over these last 14 years,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few told ESPN. “There really isn’t that much left that we haven’t done. That (No. 1 ranking) would certainly be something to cross off the list.”

A No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament would be another milestone for Gonzaga, which was a second seed in 2004 and went 1-1. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi currently has GU as the third No. 1 seed and most believe the Zags will remain a top seed if they win out. However, USA Today bracket guru Patrick Stevens suggested GU could end up a No. 2 seed, partly because of the perception of the WCC as a weaker conference.

“There’s not a whole lot they can do the rest of the way,” Stevens said. “Gonzaga will probably wind up very solidly on the 2-line. There’s not a whole lot you can quibble with them. They’re 5-2 against the Top 50, 10-2 against the Top 100, 13-1 in road/neutral settings. At the same time, for most of the last two months of the season, there’s only so much they could gain.”

One certainty tonight: A Gonzaga win clinches an outright WCC championship. The Bulldogs handled BYU 83-63 a month ago, limiting 6-foot-5 guard Tyler Haws (20.9 ppg) to just one point and All-WCC forward Brandon Davies to 14 points, two during a first half that ended with Gonzaga on top 40-21.

The Cougars have dropped three of their last five and could use a marquee win to get back on track as they pursue their seventh straight 25-win season.

“The level of desperation and intensity is going to be at an all-time high,” Few said of facing the Cougars. “We’re going to have to match that. That’s a physical team and they run a couple different types of zone (defenses) that we have to get comfortable against.”

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