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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

John Blanchette: Gonzaga not chicken when it comes to taking its spot atop the college basketball podium

The polls don’t come out until Monday, but the snark was already fast breaking Saturday afternoon.

“Welcome to your worst nightmare Gonzaga: the #1 ranking,” came the blast over Twitter.

From Buffalo bloody Wild Wings.

When corporate America is lobbing grenades at you, perhaps that’s the real welcome mat to elitedom.

Not that Gonzaga America didn’t lob back.

Tweeted one respondent, “$9 beers and mediocre wings are actually my worst nightmare.”

Then again, this all could have been a misread. Fact is, being No. 1 in college basketball this season has been the shakiest perch since baby did the rock-a-bye thing in the treetop. So perhaps the wing joint wasn’t suggesting the Bulldogs were undeserving but merely issuing a caution. If the Bulldogs do indeed ascend to the top spot come Monday, they’ll be the sixth No. 1 in eight weeks of polling – the distinction being a kiss of death for previous occupants Michigan State, Kentucky, Duke, Louisville and now Kansas, which succumbed to Villanova even before the No. 2 Zags took the floor Saturday.

Is this college hoops, or the Democratic presidential derby?

But something suggests the Zags can handle it.

For starters, they don’t play again until Dec. 30, so they should enjoy at least a second week on top. And in their 13-1 start to the season, they’ve shown a willingness to, well, bring it.

Take Saturday at the McCarthey Athletic Center.

After last week’s case of civic hyperventilation over the visit of North Carolina, the sheer ennui of an encore against neighbor Eastern Washington had Gonzaga coach Mark Few a little unnerved. The Kennel Clubbers had finally skedaddled for Christmas after sticking around to do their part last Wednesday, and every wave must crash on shore sometime.

“I don’t remember ever being on a such an emotionally and physically challenging run,” said Few, referencing Gonzaga’s wins over Washington, Arizona and UNC in the space of 10 days prior to the EWU game. “Then you have a really good opponent who I think is on their way to having a really fine year. And I knew it was going to be like a morgue in here.

“The timing wasn’t right. The opponent probably wasn’t right.”

But the Zags were right. And then some.

The 112-77 blasting of Eastern will elicit a shrug everywhere beyond the county line and most precincts within. Gonzaga’s supposed to win this game, and by a lot. But these Eags are a popular choice to win the Big Sky and arrived leading the nation in scoring, and the right mix of emotion, shooting and energy might well have turned the game into a toughie.

And it did. It was tough for Eastern.

Maybe seeing that Kansas score and realizing the opportunity ahead was the tonic the Zags needed.

“I heard about it,” Gonzaga freshman Anton Watson allowed.

And the prospect of being No. 1?

“It’s definitely awesome,” he said, “but we can’t let it get to our heads. We still have to get better. Because there’s been all these No. 1 teams that have been beaten – like five this year.”

Besides, this is hardly virgin soil for the Zags.

Presuming voters elevate them, this will be Gonzaga’s fifth ascension to No. 1: for two weeks in 2013, four more in 2017 and twice for a total of five weeks last season. At least this one won’t be accompanied by the usual screeds that the ranking came only through attrition in more rugged leagues and the Bulldogs blowing through the West Coast Conference.

Yet Few continues to insist that this year more than any other, a poll before March “is an exercise in futility.”

The upsets that have toppled previous No. 1s – Stephen F. Austin over Duke, Evansville over Kentucky – suggest that college basketball is playing its way back to the middle. Maybe that’s a disservice to Cinderellas who’ve found March glory in recent years, but there is also algebra which reveals that college offenses at the top end aren’t as efficient as they’ve been. Some of this muddle has to link to a talent drain – players leaving college early not because they’re projected to be lottery picks, but simply because they might be drafted, or even just play in the G League.

“I get it – it’s a dream for everybody,” Few said. “But if you don’t have leverage at the next level, then you’re basically just a piece of meat. Now, if that’s what you want to do, that’s fine. And our guys are like anybody else – they want to play at the next level and I want them to play the next level. But college basketball is losing a lot of guys like that.

“It’s hard for a team to get old.”

And it puts a premium on growing up. At that, the Zags – young and old – have been exemplary.

And now they’re likely to be going up to No. 1, one more time.

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