Semantics, folks, but this is the fourth time Gonzaga’s been the No. 1 team in college basketball. Not the second.
There were actually three glorious weeks when the Bulldogs were No. 1 back in 2013 – each a different vote, each week requiring survival and victory first to get there and then to stay there.
And as we’re always told, the staying is the hard part.
Which it was.
Because then it was over – the first-weekend loss in the NCAA Tournament to the Wichita State Shockers, who wouldn’t stop shocking until they reached the Final Four.
So go ahead and party this week like it’s 2013. Or harder. Because these things were meant to be temporary.
As this year’s Bulldogs began pointing out back when the ascension to No. 1 was still presumed and not fact, the polls of Jan. 30 are about as weighty as a 2-0 lead from a layup off the opening tip.
“Somebody’s going to occupy that spot,” said senior guard Jordan Mathews. “It matters who owns it from April to the next November. It matters when you cut the nets down.”
Nobody cuts the nets down over a poll.
But the cottage industry that’s grown up around the independent votes of the media and coaches is a moveable marketplace of hype, indignation, buzz and hollering, with the only goods being manufactured generally being some T-shirts with a limited life in the ol’ wardrobe rotation – and pressure.
“That’s from the outside,” Mathews insisted, “not in here.”
Fine. But that’s some powerful stuff out there.
If there’s anyone who ought to know what’s in store for the 2017 Zags as they walk the tightrope of not only being college basketball’s last unbeaten team but now the acclaimed No. 1, it’s the 2013 Zags.
Two players have been part of both No. 1s, of course – the long and the short of Bulldogs basketball, Przemek Karnowski and Rem Bakamus. But in 2013, Shem was mere months off the plane from Poland and still getting the hang of this college basketball craziness, and Rem’s role would seem to be joyously pressure free.
And joy is certainly part of it.
“I remember walking around campus, and it was just a big celebration,” said Sam Dower, the hang-loose forward on the 2013 team. “There was a big No. 1 cake in front of the Crosby Center and morale was just high. We felt good. Our hard work was paying off. And we felt we deserved it. I know they didn’t want to give it to us, but they finally did.”
But in checking around, sure enough, it wasn’t all joy.
“You feel a little more in terms of pressure,” said Mike Hart, the true-glue guy of the 2013 Bulldogs, “but you’re also more gunned for than you were before. Everybody wants to knock off No. 1.”
The evidence started to pile up quickly. At halftime in the semis of the West Coast Conference tournament against Loyola Marymount, the Zags led just 27-26. Likewise, in the NCAA opener, 16th-seeded Southern trailed only 34-31 at half – and Gonzaga struggled to win by six.
The eye test suggested those Bulldogs were not at their best at tournament time; that happens to a few elite teams every year, so it’s dubious to infer that being No. 1 played a factor. But Gonzaga, then and now, has another issue.
“We’d gone so long without losing that we hadn’t experienced much of the adversity that helps teach you how to get through those situations,” Hart said. “It’s great to be feeling good about yourself, but there’s going to come a point when it’s not so easy – and whether you like to admit it or not, it helps to have been in that situation.”
At least the 2013 team had a couple of close calls. This year’s Zags haven’t had a WCC win of fewer than 15 points. But two tests come in short order – at BYU on Thursday, even if the Cougars have been wildly erratic, and the rematch at Saint Mary’s on Feb. 11.
“This team will have it’s own journey,” Hart said, “and they’ll have more time in the conference season to deal with all of it. Hopefully they’ll have to fight through a challenge or two. Because you’re going to get hit with them at some point.”
So is there a guide book the 2013 Zags can pass down to this team?
“I’m sure they’re getting advice from everybody,” said Dower. “Just keep your eyes on the prize. Don’t let outside forces – social media, fans, hecklers, any of it – get into your inner core.”
And enjoy it. You know who hasn’t been No. 1 in the polls as often as Gonzaga? Try Louisville, among the bluest of bluebloods. Baylor, Iowa, Wisconsin. You know who’s never been No. 1? Maryland, Oregon, Cal.
Whether this is temporary or a serial circumstance, eating it up seems preferable to letting it eat you up.
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