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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Zags prominent in national picture

Baylor is poised to sit atop the college basketball rankings for the first time in program history when the AP poll is released Monday.

The Bears, who join Gonzaga as the only unbeaten Division I teams left, will probably be behind Big 12 Conference nemesis Kansas, which figures to move up from No. 2, in the USA Today rankings.

Villanova’s loss to Butler earlier in the week opened the door for two Big 12 No. 1s.

Meanwhile, Gonzaga is front and center again in the national landscape. The Zags (15-0) are perched in the top five, ran the non-conference slate for the first time and projected as a No. 1 seed by bracket guru Joe Lunardi.

Right where they belong, based on their body of work.

“Then it’s fact, right, if Lunardi says it,” cracked ESPN college basketball analyst Seth Greenberg. “I don’t want to say this is anybody’s best team, but I would think this is (coach) Mark Few’s most compete team, especially in relation to the rest of the country.

“I think he has a special team. He’s got size, experience, shot-making and versatility with his lineup. The versatility, I mean he has skill and athleticism in the frontcourt and the backcourt.”

The Zags have made 18 consecutive NCAA trips and they’ve been particularly strong recently in odd-numbered years. They reached the top of the polls and landed a No. 1 seed in the 2013 NCAA tournament for the first time in program history. They finished 32-3 after falling to Wichita State in the round of 32.

Two years later, Gonzaga posted a school-record 35 wins and equaled the 1999 team with a run to the Elite Eight. Eventual national champion Duke ended second-seeded Gonzaga’s season.

Now it gets interesting for Gonzaga as well as the other top five teams. Baylor visits No. 7 West Virginia on Tuesday and has two February showdowns with Kansas. The Jayhawks have ruled the Big 12 with 12 consecutive titles.

UCLA, rated fourth in the AP and fifth in USA Today, has two matchups with No. 17 Arizona, two with No. 25 USC and a rematch with No. 15 Oregon, which won the first encounter in late December.

Villanova meets No. 16 Xavier on Tuesday and No. 11 Virginia at the end of the month.

The Zags have to address their own conference business. The WCC had two teams, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s, ranked in the preseason poll for the first time. The 19th-ranked Gaels (14-1), who visit Gonzaga on Saturday, won two of three against the Zags last season.

Saint Mary’s lone loss was against visiting Texas-Arlington, which carries a top 35 RPI. BYU has upset Gonzaga the last two seasons on the Zags’ home court.

GU has seven players averaging at least 8.3 points. Nigel Williams-Goss took matters into his own hands with a 36-point outburst against San Francisco last Thursday but that was the team’s individual game-high by 13 points.

Villanova’s Josh Hart, UCLA’s Lonzo Ball, Kansas’ Frank Mason are leading contenders for player of the year. Williams-Goss, who averages a team-high 15.3 points, doesn’t show up on those top 10 lists but he did make several awards watch lists.

The Zags’ balanced approach reflects their depth of talent.

“They’re a lot of like UCLA, UCLA has great balance with six players averaging in double figures. In a lot of ways Gonzaga is like some of those other teams,” Greenberg said. “You look at the roster and you see an experienced low-post player. You don’t think Kansas would like Przemek Karnowski? You don’t think Kansas’ frontcourt would like to have (Zach) Collins or (Killian) Tillie? You don’t think Villanova would like to have Nigel or another jump shooter like Jordan Mathews?

“We undervalue how good these players are. Josh Perkins was recruited by UCLA. Collins was recruited by just about everybody.”

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