SPOKANE — Give it to ‘em.
Go ahead, media, coaches, make the leap. Anoint Gonzaga the No. 1 men’s basketball team in the country Monday, if for no other reason than to see if the Zags handle the polls better than the hot potato it has been for the rest of the college game’s elite in 2012-13.
Just don’t expect a lot of immediate reaction from Mark Few, the Zags coach.
He’s going fishing that day.
After his team had dispatched Portland pretty much clinically here Saturday afternoon, 81-52, Few said a few of the obligatory things about the prospect of being No. 1, about how it would be an honor, etc., etc.
And then he said to a handful of writers encircling him, “I mean, you guys have been around here forever. Come on, it’d be pretty cool for Gonzaga to be ranked No. 1. My first year here (1990), we won four Division I games.”
Good for him. Why not embrace a moment when the Zags (29-2) are on the threshold of a triple crown of sorts — their first 30-win season; perhaps their first No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament; and probably, their first successful ascent to the mountaintop of the polls?
“How many opportunities do you have?” asked his assistant coach, Ray Giacoletti. “I might be biased, but I think the team’s earned it.”
You know the particulars. The Zags are No. 2 in both polls this week. No. 1 Indiana lost at Minnesota. Third-ranked Duke got defensed at Virginia before nosing past No. 5 Miami on Saturday. Michigan, No. 4, folded at Penn State.
Unless the voters decide to go curmudgeonly and keep Indiana in the No. 1 spot, there may be no other option for them than Gonzaga.
For their part, the GU players don’t seem especially hung up on it. But then, they may not fully appreciate the modest beginnings of this program.
“I gotta be honest,” said senior forward Elias Harris, who led all scorers with 20 points. “I really don’t care. It’s talk if you don’t play.”
But when asked if he thought the Zags deserve the top spot, he said, “Why not? Why wouldn’t we deserve it? We feel we can play with anybody in the country. You’re always going to have people skeptical and say our conference is not comparable to the Big East or SEC, but at the end of the day, it’s not easy, no matter who it is, to go undefeated in conference.
“No matter what comes out Monday, we’re gonna be happy.”
They were surely happy Saturday, completing the first 16-0 run through the West Coast Conference on Senior Day, when Harris, Mike Hart and Guy Landry Edi were honored before the game, descending individually from the upper concourse to the festivities below.
“Coming down those stairs, I was holding back tears, for sure,” said Hart.
And then, the team that passes up good shots for better ones offed Portland (11-20) with consummate ease. The score was 9-9 before Gary Bell Jr., Hart and Kevin Pangos rained threes in a span of 65 seconds, and the Zags sped off.
There was never a doubt they’d win, just whether they’d impress. Check, and check. They got out and ran, ran better than they have in weeks. On one second-half fast break, Pangos found seven-foot Kelly Olynyk galloping on the right wing and he slammed it.
“It was a special, special afternoon,” said Few. Harris, he lauded as “one of the all-time greats to play here.” And Hart, a true walk-on who became indispensable, was “a guy coming out of the student section.”
Afterward, Few implored the crowd to savor the moment, and his team did, cutting down the nets and wearing T-shirts commemorating the WCC title that was spirited away by Saint Mary’s last season.
“We’re going to go down to Vegas to try to win the (WCC) tournament, and then we’re going to go into the NCAA tournament trying to win the thing,” he said. “We don’t get caught up in what number we’re at or what we’re seeded.”
So give it to ‘em. Let’s see how they deal with it.
If Few’s example gives us an inkling, they’ll be fine with the vote. On Selection Monday, he’ll be in waders, leaving the debate to somebody else.