The games haven’t even started yet, but Gonzaga has gone where no Gonzaga team has gone before.
The Zags checked in at No. 3 in the AP men’s basketball poll, surpassing the program’s preseason high of No. 8 in 2006. That team went 29-4, dropping a heartbreaker to UCLA in the Sweet 16.
Gonzaga was preseason No. 14 in 2017 when it reached the Final Four for the first time, falling to North Carolina in the championship game. The Zags were No. 18 last year when they made the Sweet 16 for the fourth consecutive season.
Gonzaga picked up one first-place vote and 1,461 points, nine points ahead of No. 4 Duke, a possible opponent at the Maui Invitational.
No. 1 Kansas received 37 of the 65 first-place votes and 1,581 points. No. 2 Kentucky had 19 first-place votes and 1,529 points.
Gonzaga has four returning players on watch lists for national awards: Josh Perkins, Bob Cousy Award (top point guard); Zach Norvell Jr., Jerry West Award (top shooting guard); Rui Hachimura, Julius Erving Award (top small forward); and Killian Tillie, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award (top center).
The Zags also boast transfers Brandon Clarke (San Jose State) and Geno Crandall (North Dakota). Clarke averaged 17.3 points as a sophomore and Crandall, who joined the team about 10 days ago, averaged 16.6 last season.
Gonzaga was in the conversation for one of the top two spots during the offseason, but Kansas returns starters in center Udoka Azubuike and guard Lagerald Vick from last year’s Final Four team and added three key transfers. Kentucky solidified the second spot by landing Stanford graduate transfer Reid Travis along with another top recruiting class.
Virginia, led by former Washington State coach Tony Bennett, is No. 5. The Cavaliers were upset by 16-seeded Maryland-Baltimore County last March, becoming the first top seed to lose in the opening round.
Gonzaga’s non-conference schedule includes a showdown against No. 6 Tennessee in Phoenix, a road trip to No. 8 North Carolina and a home date with No. 25 Washington. The Huskies made the preseason rankings for the first time in eight seasons and thumped No. 7 Nevada 91-73 in a scrimmage Sunday.
The Zags could encounter Arizona (14 points in the AP poll) in a second-round matchup in Maui. GU’s potential final-round Maui opponents include Duke, No. 11 Auburn, Xavier (2 points) or San Diego State (9 points).
Gonzaga meets No. 10 Michigan State in a closed scrimmage Saturday in Minneapolis.
Florida State, which eliminated Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 last year, opens at No. 17.
When it comes to the preseason poll, the top spot doesn’t always translate into NCAA Tournament success. Kansas earned its third preseason No. 1 under coach Bill Self, but the 2005 Jayhawks were stunned by Bucknell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and the 2010 squad hung on to No. 1 most of the season before falling to Northern Iowa in the second round.
Duke was the preseason No. 1 each of the last two seasons. The 2017 Blue Devils lost to South Carolina in the round of 32. Kansas knocked off second-seeded Duke in a regional final last season.
The last preseason No. 1 to win it all was North Carolina in 2009. Along the way, the Tar Heels thumped Gonzaga in a Sweet 16 matchup.
The ACC led all conferences with seven Top 25 representatives. The SEC had five, followed by the Big 12 with four. The Pac-12, led by No. 14 Oregon, and Big Ten each had three.
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