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From big blowout to big commitment, Gonzaga rides momentum back to No. 1

UPDATED: Mon., Feb. 25, 2019, 8 p.m.

 (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
(Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Gonzaga is enjoying one of the best three-day spans in program history.

The Zags crushed BYU by 34 points Saturday on Senior Night. They picked up a commitment from 6-foot-10 center Oumar Ballo, considered one of the top international recruits available, shortly before tipoff.

And on Monday, the Zags returned to No. 1 in the latest AP poll.

“It means a job well done by these guys for three, four months,” said coach Mark Few, when asked late last week about the possibility of returning to the top spot.

The Zags are also back at No. 1 in the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) rankings after being second last Monday. NET rankings will be one of the selection committee’s main tools for sorting and seeding NCAA Tournament teams.

Gonzaga (27-2) hasn’t had to come back very often on the court this season, but it has completed a two-month rally by landing on top of the AP rankings. The Zags were No. 1 for two weeks, but slipped to eighth in mid-December after consecutive losses to Tennessee and North Carolina.

The Zags have responded by winning 18 straight games, the longest active streak in the nation. The closest margin of victory in that stretch has been 13-point road wins against San Francisco and Loyola Marymount.

“It’s huge,” junior forward Brandon Clarke said following a 92-68 rout of the Cougars. “At one point we were ranked seventh (actually eighth). It just shows this team has the urge to fight back even after losing two tough games. It just shows our team has really good character, and we can fight whenever.”

Gonzaga coach Mark Few doesn’t get too wrapped up in the polls, but he liked the timing of the Zags’ latest rise to No. 1.

“It doesn’t mean that much to me,” Few said. “I would say this: It’s obviously more significant and has more meaning and has a little more depth to it this time of year than in November, when everybody has played varying schedules.”

The benefits of being No. 1 include invaluable exposure for the program and the university, increased attention from print and broadcast media and perhaps an assist in recruiting.

Still, the rankings are just a weekly snapshot in time. Duke has had three turns at the top this season. Gonzaga has replaced Duke at the top twice, the first in late November after an 89-87 win over the Blue Devils for the Maui Invitational championship.

Kansas was No. 1 in the preseason poll and replaced the Zags after their loss to Tennessee on Dec. 9. Tennessee held the top spot for four weeks before falling to Kentucky nine days ago.

The top ranking certainly gets the attention of opponents.

“When teams see that one by us, it makes them want to play harder,” Clarke said. “If they win, it’s probably the biggest win of their careers. That’s obviously something that’s going to happen, but we should be fine.”

Few won’t deviate from his pragmatic approach.

“Obviously, it doesn’t score you any baskets or get you any rebounds or get you any stops,” he said. “That’s all I’m concerned about.”

Gonzaga has been ranked first four times in program history, including twice this season. The Zags reached the top late in the 2013 season and for four weeks after a 22-0 start in 2017.

The Zags received 44 first-place votes and 1,569 points. Virginia had two wins over ranked opponents and moved past Duke into the second spot, despite two head-to-head losses to the Blue Devils. The Cavaliers had 15 first-place votes and trail GU by 56 points.

Duke, which received three first-place votes, slipped to No. 3. Kentucky is fourth, followed by North Carolina, which routed Duke and Florida State to move up three spots.

Michigan State, Tennessee, Houston, Michigan and Marquette complete the top 10. Washington cracked the rankings at No. 25, the same spot the Huskies occupied in the preseason poll until an early-November blowout loss to then-No. 11 Auburn.

Gonzaga also moved up to No. 1 in the USA Today poll. Duke dropped into a second-place tie with Virginia. The Zags earned 26 of 32 first-place votes from the coaches and hold a 59-point edge over the Blue Devils and Cavaliers.

The top five in the NET rankings are Gonzaga, Virginia, Duke, Houston and Kentucky.

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