By Jim Meehan The Spokesman-Review
Senior guard Mike Hart woke up, checked his phone and learned that the Gonzaga Bulldogs have gone where no Zags have gone before.
“I went to Facebook and pretty much everyone’s status was, ‘No. 1 in the nation,’” Hart said. “Literally everyone’s. I don’t think I saw any other status but that. That was pretty cool and exciting to see all our fans go crazy and all my friends go crazy.”
“It was pretty cool to finally see it in print and not just being talked about.”
The Bulldogs on Monday reached No. 1 in both major polls for the first time in school history. Gonzaga (29-2) received 51 first-place votes and 1,607 points to outdistance No. 2 Indiana (seven first-place votes, 1,517 points) in the AP Top 25. GU had 29 of 31 first-place votes and 773 points in the USA Today coaches’ poll. No. 2 Indiana received no first-place votes and 710 points.
The Bulldogs were No. 2 a week ago and swapped places with Indiana, which dropped after losing to Minnesota and defeating Iowa. Duke, following a 1-1 week, stayed put at No. 3 in AP, but slipped to No. 4 behind Kansas in the coaches’ poll.
Gonzaga seems to be enjoying the best of both worlds — the No. 1 ranking while retaining ample motivation.
“Deep inside we have to keep in mind we’re still going to be the underdog,” senior forward Elias Harris said after GU’s win over Portland on Saturday. “People aren’t going to look at us like a Duke or North Carolina or a Kentucky, you name it. People, for some reason, still think Gonzaga is a Cinderella story, and that’s after more than a decade of playing great basketball.”
Added sophomore guard Gary Bell Jr.: “Gonzaga, a small school, they probably didn’t want to put us No. 1 but now that they did it’s an honor. Like Elias said, we have to play with a chip on our shoulders all the time.”
Coach Mark Few told Portland counterpart Eric Reveno on Saturday he was planning on going fishing Monday because the river would be too crowded Sunday. The players return to practice today after having Sunday and Monday off.
“It’s great for the program, the school, the city of Spokane and the region and entire Northwest,” Few said in news release. “We still have a lot more to accomplish, starting this weekend (at the WCC tournament) in Las Vegas and moving forward to the NCAA tournament.”
Gonzaga is the first WCC team to be ranked No. 1 since Bill Cartwright-led San Francisco in the 1977 season. The Zags are the first team from Washington to be No. 1. Memphis, in the 2007-08 season, was the last school outside the power six conferences to reach No. 1.
“It does wonders for any conference to have a No. 1 team, especially a program outside the quote ‘big 6 conferences’ that normally occupy that spot,” WCC commissioner Jamie Zaninovich said. “It proves to us that you can be the No. 1 team from the WCC or any other conference.”
Gonzaga, which was No. 21 in the preseason poll, is the fifth different No. 1 team this season. Indiana and Duke each had two turns at the top. Louisville and Michigan had one-week stays at No. 1 in January. The final regular-season poll will be released next week.
One of the hot topics nationally is whether Gonzaga deserves a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, provided it wins the WCC tournament. The No. 1 ranking is essentially ceremonial and carries little, if any, weight with the Division I men’s basketball committee.
“Ceremonial is a good word,” said Zaninovich, one of 10 committee members who select 37 at-large teams and seed teams 1 through 68. “We have a lot of data that we pay attention to, starting with RPI, but all the other ranking systems are made available to us. I think people recognize (the polls) are more of a public perception metric than some of the others.”
Zaninovich exits the room when the committee discusses Gonzaga and other WCC schools.
The No. 1 ranking will bring increased media attention, but not necessarily additional pressure, assistant coach Tommy Lloyd said. “One thing that gets lost is maybe we’ve never been No. 1 but we’ve been ranked a lot and had a lot of success. We have a mature group of guys.”
The Bulldogs have won 12 straight games, avoiding the wave of upsets involving top 10 teams in recent weeks. Gonzaga is the No. 1 seed in the WCC tournament and has a bye into Saturday’s semifinals.
“I’ll look back on it once my career is over and think that’s pretty cool we were No. 1 in the nation,” Hart said, “but it has no bearing on our next game.
“I feel like we have a great resume, but it doesn’t matter what I think or what (poll voters) think. The beauty of college basketball is you play it out on the court.”