If you don’t think the Gonzaga Bulldogs deserve to be No. 1, that’s OK by them
Since Gonzaga burst onto the national scene in 1999, it has made runs to the Elite Eight and Sweet 16, and put players in the NBA. Now it heads into the home stretch of this season with a No. 1 ranking.
As the ‘Zags get set for their last tough test of the regular season – Saturday at No. 20 Saint Mary’s (22-2, 12-1 WCC) – they know that there are still doubters. And they know they need one more accomplishment to get total respect: They need to get to a Final Four.
“It’s easy to stay grounded when you feel like you have the whole country doubting you,” junior point guard Nigel Williams-Goss said following Thursday’s 90-60 win at Loyola Marymount. “We feel like we’ve got a lot of non-believers out there.”
Gonzaga’s resume is as complete as anyone’s. The Bulldogs have a victory over Pac-12 leader Arizona as well as Florida, which is tied atop the SEC standings. They’ve beaten Tennessee in Tennessee (a team that beat No. 15 Kentucky a few weeks ago) and Iowa State, which snapped Kansas’ 54-game home-court win streak last Saturday. Then there was a 79-56 victory in Spokane over Saint Mary’s – one of the Gaels’ two losses.
Once again, the ‘Zags seem positioned for a postseason run, a place they have been the past several years. In 2013, they ranked No. 1 in the polls and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament before being knocked out by a Cinderella in Wichita State. They advanced to the Elite Eight in 2015 and Sweet 16 last season.
Fifth-year senior Przemek Karnowski has been there for those runs and sees a difference between those clubs and this team.
“First of all, the depth,” the 7-foot-1, 300-pound Karnowski said. “Everyone comes in and can make impact on the game. The ninth, 10th, 11th guy can come in and they can play at the same level as the starting five.”
That depth was on full display as Gonzaga attacked Loyola Marymount with waves and waves of high-level players. Many of those players played at high-major schools, but sought refuge in Spokane, willing to sacrifice stats for the chance to win big.
Williams-Goss (a Washington transfer) led the way with 19 points and 11 rebounds. Jordan Mathews had 11; he’s actually averaging fewer points per game this year (10.6) than he did last year on an NCAA Tournament team at Cal (13.5). Same with Missouri transfer Johnathan Williams, who tallied 13 points. Freshmen Zach Collins and Killian Tillie each added double-figure scoring off the bench.
Williams-Goss saw plenty of talented teams in two seasons in the Pac-12. And he’ll pit this Gonzaga team against any of them.
“I was in the Pac-12 when Arizona was No. 1 in the country,” he said. “Utah was Top 10 in the country when I was there. I’ve seen a lot of high-level programs. I feel like this is a really special, unique team.”
Head coach Mark Few isn’t worried about his team’s demeanor heading into the Saint Mary’s game, noting that Gonzaga has played in big games. He scoffed at the idea of the pressure ratcheting up if the 25-0 Bulldogs beat the final ranked opponent on their regular-season schedule.
“No [talk of going undefeated hasn’t affected us yet],” Few said. “In fact, I think they’ve just grown tired of it … I think the novelty of being undefeated and being No. 1 has kind of worn off and I think they’re focused on the task at hand.”
Few’s players agreed.
“We’ve got to take care of the WCC, then the tournament, then Selection Sunday,” Karnowski said. “Take it one day at a time.”
It continues at Saint Mary’s. But Gonzaga’s players also know that the doubts won’t stop until they get to that elusive Final Four and … win the national championship.
“You’ve got to get over the hump,” Williams-Goss said. “And I would like to be part of the group to do it.”