SPOKANE — The No. 16 Gonzaga Bulldogs will seek to reach 20 wins for a 13th consecutive season today, and coach Mark Few would like fans to savor that fact, at least a little.
“It’s a big deal,” Few said this week as the Zags (19-4, 7-1 West Coast Conference) prepared for a first place showdown with Saint Mary’s (21-3, 8-1).
“We’ve become accustomed to it up here,” Few said.
A look at the struggles of basketball powers like North Carolina and Connecticut this season shows that success is not automatic. The Zags have been making it look easy, however.
Gonzaga has won at least 20 games every season since the 1997-98 team went 24-10. Few, who is in his 11th season as head coach, has never won fewer than 23 games.
Few and North Carolina coach Roy Williams are the only active coaches with a winning percentage above 80 percent, and only Williams (305) had more wins than Few (283) in his first 11 seasons.
This was expected to be a rebuilding year for the Zags after losing four starters. But solid play by veterans Matt Bouldin and Steven Gray, and an emerging star in freshman Elias Harris (16 points, eight rebounds per game) have the Zags almost certainly headed to a 12th consecutive NCAA tournament.
Bouldin is having a stellar senior year, averaging 16 points and four assists per game. He was just named a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award given to college basketball’s top point guard.
While the Zags are often docked for playing in the relatively weak WCC, this season they have wins over Wisconsin, Cincinnati, Washington State, Oklahoma, Illinois and Memphis. Their losses are to Michigan State, Duke, Wake Forest and league rival San Francisco.
Today’s game is a showdown with the team most likely to break Gonzaga’s dominance of the WCC.
Saint Mary’s is working on its own streak of three consecutive 20-win seasons. Since losing at home to Gonzaga by a score of 89-82, the Gaels have easily won six consecutive WCC games.
“They’ve been remarkably consistent,” Few said. “They’ve handled everybody pretty easily.”
But the Gaels have not been able to beat Gonzaga in Spokane, where coach Randy Bennett has an 0-8 record.
The Gaels are led by Omar Samhan, who averages 21 points and 11 rebounds per game. Mickey McConnell averages nearly 14 points and Matthew Dellavedova, 12.
The Zags play five of their remaining seven games at home, which is a relief after another grueling season of cross-country travel, Few said. The team this season has traveled to Hawaii, New York City, Michigan, Illinois and Tennessee, in addition to its league road games.
Gonzaga is coming off a good week in which it beat Portland at home last Thursday and then won at Memphis on Saturday.
“It’s hard to be on an emotional high every night out,” Few said. “But we’ve got to seize the moment.”