Ben Margot/Associated Press file photo
Ben Margot/Associated Press file photo
SPOKANE, Wash. – Second-ranked Gonzaga’s game at BYU on Thursday suddenly has national significance.
With No. 1 Indiana losing to Minnesota on Tuesday, the Zags might reach the top of the AP basketball poll Monday if they can beat BYU then defeat Portland on Saturday.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling to be part of such a team that has accomplished so much up to this point,” forward Elias Harris said earlier this week. “It makes me proud.”
The feat would be unprecedented for the mid-major program from the small Jesuit college in Spokane. While Gonzaga has been running with the elite teams in the nation for more than a decade, few in Spokane dreamed that coach Mark Few’s gang ever could be No. 1.
“It’s special ... that people see you in that light at the top of the nation,” guard Mike Hart said.
Gonzaga (27-2, 14-0 WCC) beat BYU 83-63 last month in Spokane. But the Bulldogs lost last year in Provo, where more than 20,000 fans make for a tough environment.
“This one’s going to be a huge challenge,” Hart said. “The crowd and their atmosphere down there is really unbelievable. ... They are going to be rowdy and into it.”
Gonzaga has played before plenty of big crowds this season, including games at Oklahoma State, Washington State and Butler.
“We function very well in that type of environment,” Few said.
A victory at BYU would give Gonzaga the WCC regular-season title outright. The Cougars (20-9, 9-5 WCC) need a signature win to make a case for an invitation to the NCAA Tournament.
If the Zags beat BYU, their final regular-season game is at home Saturday against Portland (11-19, 4-10 WCC), an opponent they beat by 22 points on the road earlier this season.
This Gonzaga team was pegged as special from the preseason, largely because of Harris and returning guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. The surprise has been the emergence of junior center Kelly Olynyk, who redshirted last season after two undistinguished years on the team.
The 7-foot Olynyk is averaging more than 17 points and six rebounds per game, shooting 66 percent from the field and thrilling crowds with acrobatic dunks.
Hart brings defensive energy, and the Zags get strong bench play from forward Sam Dower and guard David Stockton, the son of Gonzaga great John Stockton.
The team has a strong international flavor. Harris is from Germany, while Pangos and Olynyk are Canadians.
The Bulldogs opened the season with nine consecutive wins, lost at home to Illinois, then reeled off eight more victories. They had a last-second defeat at Butler and since then have ripped off 10 wins in a row, never giving up more than 63 points in any of those games.
With teams above them in the poll losing left and right, the Zags moved steadily into the top 10, then the top 5 and finally last week reached No. 2. Their previous high ranking of No. 3 came the last two weeks of the 2003-04 season for a team that featured future NBA players Ronny Turiaf and Adam Morrison.
“It’s nice to move up and take advantage by winning,” Stockton said. “Otherwise we can’t control that stuff.”
The Zags have been fixtures on the AP Top 25 for more than a decade, but this year’s team seems different, at least to San Diego coach Bill Grier. Grier spent 16 years as an assistant at Gonzaga, helping build the program, before leaving five years ago.
He believes that more recent Gonzaga teams had such talented players that coaches just let them play, rather than pushing complicated offensive schemes.
“But this team can play fast, and they can slow it down and grind,” Grier said. “They’re patient when they need to be, and they get the ball right where they want it.
“More than any of their recent teams ... this one really executes,” Grier said.
Gonzaga often is dismissed because its conference schedule is considered less than grueling. But, as usual, the Bulldogs make up for it with a brutal nonconference slate. Gonzaga this year owns wins over Kansas State (currently ranked No. 13), Oklahoma State (now No. 15), Baylor, Oklahoma, Clemson, West Virginia, Washington State and Davidson.
“We are 29 games into the year, and we only have two losses, and they are quality losses,” Hart said. “That speaks for itself.”
Being No. 1 would bring its own problems. The top-ranked team in the poll has lost seven times this season. Three of those defeats were by Indiana, which fell 77-73 to Minnesota on Tuesday. The Hoosiers (24-4, 12-3 Big Ten) have held the No. 1 ranking for 10 of the 17 polls this season, including the last four.
After this week’s games, the Zags will travel to the WCC tournament in Las Vegas, where archrival Saint Mary’s likely awaits them.
“Every next game is the most important game for us this year,” Hart said.
So do the Zags deserve their high ranking?
“You tell me; you’re the media guys,” Harris said. “Our job is to get in here and practice and work with the coaching staff to get better.
“That’s all we are worried about,” Harris said. “Whatever happens, happens.”