SEATTLE — So rarefied is the air the Gonzaga men’s basketball program is breathing these days, it’s now pertinent to ask the question:
Could this team be ranked No. 1 in the nation before the season is out? (It just might.)
Which poses a second question: Could it be ranked No. 1 entering the NCAA tournament? (It just might.)
Which brings us to a third question: Would that be a good thing? (Unequivocally, no.)
I don’t believe Gonzaga is the best team in the country, but then, in this season of upsets on demand and poll shuffles and parity, I don’t know who is, either. Besides, polls are almost beside that point, merely a flavor-of-the-week barometer of who’s hot and who’s not.
This week, Gonzaga is No. 3 in both The Associated Press and the coaches polls, with Indiana and Miami ahead. The squirrely nature of these votes is reflected in the fact that while Gonzaga got a solid victory on the road against Saint Mary’s last week, Miami had a couple of close wins over undistinguished teams in Florida State and Clemson (45-43), yet moved past the Zags.
That could be a sign that while those around college basketball appreciate the rise of the little school from Spokane, they’re not willing yet to anoint it, either.
They may have little choice.
Indiana has treacherous road games left at Michigan State (Tuesday night), Minnesota and Michigan. Miami has to go to Duke on March 2. Gonzaga, now that it has the pothole at Saint Mary’s out of the way, is a candidate to sweep the WCC (which would mean a challenging road victory at Brigham Young on Feb. 28 and winning the league tournament).
In concert with some carnage around them, that might be enough to do it for the Zags. I’d submit that would be pretty cool for the campus of the twin spires, especially considering it didn’t win an NCAA-tournament game until 1999 and the godfather of GU basketball, Dan Fitzgerald, was renowned for trying to tamp down expectations, almost to the point of misgivings about winning.
Getting to No. 1 would be a milestone accomplishment for Gonzaga. Only four other non-BCS-conference programs have done it in the past 20 years (Memphis, St. Joseph’s, Massachusetts and Cincinnati in Conference USA days).
Only one such team in that stretch, UMass in 1996, has entered the NCAA tournament as No. 1.
If it happens, the Zags need to be ready for a media glare that would shame Clark Griswold’s outdoor lights in “Christmas Vacation.” Being No. 1 is a curiosity all its own, even if it’s invariably stamped with an expiration date.
I covered the 1981 Oregon State team that, for eight weeks, was No. 1 in one poll or the other. It had a rock-star quality when it traveled, with subtexts that it represented a lightly populated state and had a roster of players who were only moderately recruited.
In today’s media-saturated world, the spotlight on Gonzaga would be manyfold brighter, and the place is hardly lacking in story lines, from the coach who stayed to the center who redshirted and became a probable All-American to the walk-on guard who’s the son of a Naismith Hall of Famer.
But for the Zags, it’s like diving into a box of chocolates and knowing the point at which indulgence morphs into gluttony — a little goes a long way.
The danger is, the pressure becomes oppressive or the distractions spoil the real mission of a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
What they need, then, is a one-week lease at No. 1.
It’s tough enough negotiating the bracket during March without lugging an additional burden, and as it is, the Zags already get dogged for not having gone further in recent years.
In the past 20 years, eight of the teams ranked No. 1 going in made it no further than the Sweet 16. (Nine made it to the Final Four, or further.)
As it happens, the Zags could have it both ways, even without losing. There’s enough time for them to ascend to No. 1. But it’s entirely possible that, say, a Florida (No. 4 by the coaches) or a Michigan State (No. 4 in AP) could outstrip them in the polls by winning their conference tournament, and thus transfer the piano to their back by being No. 1 the day after Selection Sunday.
That’s Gonzaga’s best outcome — get in and get out.
Otherwise, the risk is fulfilling that old advice: Be careful what you wish for.