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Gonzaga, looking out for No. 1, entertains North Dakota State

Gonzaga’s Corey Kispert goes up for a layup against Duke with photos of ex-Zag Steven Gray and other past Maui Invitational greats on the wall in the background. (Marco Garcia / Associated Press)
Gonzaga’s Corey Kispert goes up for a layup against Duke with photos of ex-Zag Steven Gray and other past Maui Invitational greats on the wall in the background. (Marco Garcia / Associated Press)

The debate began shortly after third-ranked Gonzaga outlasted No. 1 Duke and picked up steam a couple days later when No. 2 Kansas rallied past No. 5 Tennessee.

It simmered over the weekend. Two strong resumes, coming off big-time wins. Two worthy candidates, but room for only one atop the rankings … unless the AP media panel votes one way and USA Today coaches panel go in a different direction.

The answer will come Monday morning with the release of the AP poll, generally followed a few hours later by the USA Today rankings.

Gonzaga (6-0), which returns to action against visiting North Dakota State on Monday, became the first to topple a top-ranked team this season when it edged Duke 89-87.

The Zags have wins over four power-conference programs, but Texas A&M, Illinois and Arizona aren’t as strong as they’ve been traditionally. The Wildcats received three votes in last week’s coaches poll.

Kansas (5-0) was No. 1 in preseason polls but slipped to second behind Duke, which crushed then-No. 2 Kentucky by 34 points in the season opener. The Jayhawks have taken care of business and they’re the only team with a pair of top-10 wins (Michigan State and Tennessee, both on neutral courts).

Regardless of the ranking next to Gonzaga’s name, the Zags have business to attend to against North Dakota State. It’s an opportunity to smooth out wrinkles – turnovers, defensive lapses, free-throw shooting – that surfaced in Maui alongside some of Gonzaga’s best stretches of the young season.

The Zags have won both series meetings, including an 86-76 victory in the 2015 NCAA Tournament.

The first page of NDSU’s game release contains a succinct scouting report on Gonzaga: “The Zags are really good. They almost never lose.”

The Bison (2-4) are coming off an 18-point loss to East Tennessee State (5-2). They were picked fifth in the nine-team Summit League.

North Dakota State has had success beyond the 3-point arc. Forward Rocky Kreuser, wing Tyree Eady and guard Jared Samuelson have combined for 33 3-pointers with shooting percentages between 44 and 48. Ten of the 11 players to see action have made at least one 3-pointer.

The Bison broke the school record with 294 3-pointers last season. They’re averaging 10.5 treys per game, ahead of last year’s 9.2.

Junior guard Tyson Ward, a preseason second-team All-Summit League selection, is NDSU’s top returning scorer (11.8) and led the squad at 5.9 rebounds per game last season.

NDSU has logged some air miles in the last 10 days. The Bison were in the Bahamas for three games, returned to Fargo and traveled to Johnson City, Tennessee, before flying out to Spokane.

Gonzaga’s Brandon Clarke is tied for first nationally with 24 blocks. He shares fifth with a 74.1 field-goal percentage. Josh Perkins is tied for second with 50 assists.

The Zags are 96-16 in November games under coach Mark Few. Their 3-0 run in Maui brings Few’s record to 36-9 in Thanksgiving week tournaments.

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