Loyola Marymount-Gonzaga Preview
SPOKANE, Wash. (AP)
Gonzaga is the first team outside of the six major conferences to be ranked No. 1 since Memphis in 2007-08.
One wouldn't guess that was the case as the Bulldogs prepare to face upstart Loyola Marymount on Saturday night in the semifinals of the West Coast Conference tournament - their first game since making program history with its first No. 1 ranking.
It's business as usual for a program that has won 80 percent of its games since the turn of the century.
"This team's pretty grounded,'' coach Mark Few said. "We all understand we've got a lot of work left to do. We've had some fun with it, but the ranking is not going to score any baskets or block any shots.
"Our greatest motivator is we want to keep playing together as long as we can.''
Few tried to keep things normal when the poll came out Monday. He gave his team the day off and went fishing. He declined to say if he caught anything.
"We hadn't had one in forever,'' Few said of the day off. "Everybody needed to get away from basketball.''
There was some news Tuesday, though. Junior center Kelly Olynyk was named the WCC player of the year, after averaging 17.7 points and 7.0 rebounds.
"It's a huge honor,'' said Olynyk, who averaged 17.5 points and shot 76.5 percent in the two wins over Loyola Marymount this season.
Olynyk is a major reason Gonzaga has the nation's best record (29-2) and won all 16 games in the WCC.
"He's really made huge strides physically and mentally,'' said Few, who was named the WCC coach of the year for the ninth time in his 14 seasons.
By winning the WCC regular-season title, the Bulldogs earned a bye into Saturday's semifinals of the league tournament in Las Vegas.
They aren't taking the conference tournament lightly, especially after losing the title game last year to Saint Mary's. And they hear the critics who contend Gonzaga doesn't deserve a top ranking because of their soft conference schedule.
"If we're No. 1 for a week and lose it in the (conference) tournament, nobody is going to remember that,'' guard Gary Bell Jr. said. "We've got to maintain No. 1.
"We have a mature team. We're ready for this.''
Elias Harris, the all-conference senior forward who is averaging 14.6 points and 7.5 rebounds, believes Gonzaga still has to earn national respect.
"Deep inside we have to keep in mind we're still going to be the underdog,'' Harris said after the Zags beat Portland 81-52 last Saturday. "People aren't going to look at us like a Duke or North Carolina or a Kentucky.
"People, for some reason, still think Gonzaga is a Cinderella story.''
Loyola Marymount (11-22) is attempting to play out one of its own. It has won three games in three days to earn its date with the Bulldogs after finishing last in the WCC with a 1-15 league record.
The Lions defeated No. 8 seed Portland 65-54 on Wednesday and knocked off fifth-seeded San Francisco 61-60 in overtime Thursday before toppling No. 4 seed Santa Clara 60-58 on Anthony Ireland's jumper with 7 seconds remaining in Friday's quarterfinals.
Coach Max Good seemed a bit overwhelmed by Loyola Marymount's stunning run considering his team had lost its last 14 games before the WCC tournament began.
"I don't know, I'm kind of speechless," Good said.
Gonzaga won the first meeting 88-43 on Jan. 31 before a 74-55 victory Feb. 9 that marked its seventh straight win over the Lions, and its 35th in the last 38 matchups since 1997.