Blanchette: Zags merit top ranking
This program is being brought to you by the number 1.
At least it should be.
Come Monday, the votes will be counted and the Gonzaga Bulldogs will be planting their flag on the moon of college basketball.
Or else the coaches and colicky punditocracy will have talked themselves out of that particular leap of logic.
Which would be a bit of pointless humbuggery on their part.
And it isn’t getting much traction in Spokane, especially in the glow of Saturday’s 81-52 romp over Portland, a Senior Day as bursting with emotion and good feeling as any that’s been played under the McCarthey Athletic Center roof.
Indeed, seeing Mike Hart – one of the three seniors recognized – descending the stairs through the Kennel Club during pregame intros was a moment drenched in both realization and symbolism. He made the very same journey, with nothing but a dream, to join the team as a walk-on and emerge, five years later, as the most impactful 2-points-a-game player in the college game.
So preoccupied was the 126th consecutive Kennel sellout with the happy sendoff that not until 37 seconds remained was the obligatory “We’re No. 1!” chant heard, and then just briefly.
But now that the moment is in the scrapbook, poll talk can return to choking off any other meaningful conversation in the city.
At least outside the Zag Cave.
“I’ve got to be honest with you – I really, really don’t care if we’re No. 1 in the country,” said senior Elias Harris. “It’s an honor, but it doesn’t mean anything at the end of the day.”
No, there is no trophy that goes with being No. 1 on March 4, no bye to the Final Four. That the Thursday bloodbath with BYU and the blitz of Portland preserved Gonzaga’s claim to the top ranking was celebrated with far less enthusiasm by the Zags than the fact that they became the first team in West Coast Conference history to go 16-0 in the round-robin.
But even a noted tamper-downer of unnecessary giddiness like Gonzaga coach Mark Few knows that, well, a little giddiness in this case is necessary.
“C’mon, it’ll be pretty cool for Gonzaga to be ranked No. 1,” he admitted. “My first year here, we won four Division I games.”
This doesn’t mean he doesn’t recognize some of the silliness that’s transpired to put the Zags on the doorstep. Just this week alone, No. 1 Indiana stumbled at Minnesota, No. 3 Duke fell at Virginia before handing No. 5 Miami a setback Saturday, and No. 4 Michigan swooned at Penn State, which hadn’t won a Big 10 game until then.
And now Matt Santangelo, the team’s radio analyst and one of the program’s Mount Rushmore players, watches the talking heads on television in a mist of déjà vu and mild amusement.
“They’ve been saying, ‘This team is really good’ for a few weeks,” he laughed, “and now it’s, ‘Oh, crap – we might have to vote them No. 1.’ So now they’re trying to tear it down, saying they haven’t played anybody, the WCC is this and that, and trying to give themselves an out.”
In other words, the same stuff the Zags have endured for 15 years.
Santangelo was on the first Bulldogs team to crack a Top 25 – Feb. 1, 1999, the final spot in the coaches’ poll. That was a watershed moment of its own, if muted by the current hoohah.
“But for us, it was a big deal just to be in ‘Others receiving votes,’ ” he said. “To have our name recognized by somebody was something – not a goal, but a benefit of the success.”
No. 1 will have other benefits, along with the inevitable media target practice over whether the Zags are worthy of the distinction and really are the best team in the land.
As if the poll ever settles that, or that it’s a more salient issue now than it was when Louisville, Duke, Michigan and Indiana were hot-potatoing No. 1 on successive weeks in January.
“Why wouldn’t we deserve it?” asked Harris, as dismissive of doubt as he was about the ranking’s weight. “We’ve played great basketball. I feel we can play with anybody in the country. Obviously, you’re always going to have people who are going to be a little skeptical and say our conference is not comparable to the Big East or the SEC. But it’s not easy, no matter who it is, to go undefeated in conference.
“No matter what comes out Monday, I’m going to be happy.”
The campus world he moves in will be happier if Gonzaga is No. 1, however. And, given all the shakes of the college basketball sack through the season, it’s time.
The Zags have earned it.