Zags fifth No. 1 this year

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SPOKANE — The to-do list for the Gonzaga basketball team got shorter Monday: For the first time, the Zags were ranked No. 1 in The Associated Press Top 25 poll.

Sweet, but it may get bumpier from there.

Next: Avoiding the potholes that have stopped every other No. 1 this season, then finding a way to the Final Four.

“It’s an honor that people would think this highly of all of us in the program,” coach Mark Few said in a prepared statement Monday afternoon. “It’s great for the program, great for the school, great for the city of Spokane and the region and the entire Northwest.

“We still have a lot more to accomplish starting this weekend in Las Vegas and moving forward to the NCAA tournament,” said Few, who reportedly went fishing on Monday. “We’re looking forward to the rest of the season and making it last as long as we can.”

Staying No. 1 has been tough this season, with Gonzaga the fifth school to hold the spot after replacing Indiana this week. The others were Duke, Louisville and Michigan.

The Zags are the 57th school to be ranked No. 1 since the AP poll began in January 1949. The school is considered a mid-major and reached No. 2 for the first time last week. Now it will play for the first time at No. 1 on Saturday night in the West Coast Conference semifinals.

The school received 51 first-place votes from the 65-member national media panel, 44 more than Indiana. Duke, winners over Miami after a loss to Virginia, remained third with five first-place votes.

Kansas and Georgetown both jumped two spots to fourth and fifth. The Hoyas received the other two first-place votes. Miami, Michigan, Louisville, Kansas State and Michigan State rounded out the top 10. Virginia Commonwealth and UCLA, both ranked earlier in the season, returned to the poll at 21st and 23rd, respectively.

Gonzaga’s rise to the top comes 14 years after the school burst onto the national scene with a surprise run to the final eight of the NCAA tournament. Since then, Few has guided the Zags to 12 conference titles, 13 trips to the tournament and four trips to the round of 16.

Along the way, Gonzaga has produced a slew of NBA players, including Dan Dickau, Adam Morrison, Ronny Turiaf, Austin Daye, Robert Sacre and Jeremy Pargo. The team features players from Canada, France, Germany and Poland along with Stockton’s son, David.

Kelly Olynyk, the 7-foot Canadian center, leads the team in scoring at nearly 18 points a game and averages seven rebounds. He calls the No. 1 ranking a “great milestone.”

“We have a special team this year,” he said. “It shows that college basketball in the rest of the country has a lot of respect for us.”

Olynyk never dreamed that he would be playing for the No. 1 team in the nation when he chose Gonzaga over other offers.

“It never even crossed my mind,” he said.

Spokane is a city of 200,000 near the Idaho and Canadian borders. The Lilac City is a blue-collar town, far from the high-tech wealth of the Seattle area. But basketball is one place where the state’s second-largest city outshines Seattle. Gonzaga, in fact, is the first team from the state of Washington to be ranked No. 1.

At the time of Gonzaga’s run to the final eight, the school had fewer than 5,000 students and was struggling with enrollment and budget issues.

Today, enrollment is at 7,800 and new buildings are popping up on campus all the time. The 6,000-seat McCarthey Athletic Center, which opened in 2004, has been sold out for all but one game. The Zags have rewarded their fans with a 120-8 home record there.

“Our success with basketball is a significant component of the convergence of forces that allowed us to grow,” said school president Dr. Thayne McCulloh.

That success hasn’t come easy. Every year, the Zags seem to take on a tougher nonconference schedule to make up for their WCC schedule. This year they own wins over No. 9 Kansas State, No. 13 Oklahoma State, plus Clemson, Oklahoma, Baylor, Washington State and West Virginia. Their only losses are to Illinois and Butler.

“We’ve had our struggles and battles, but we’ve made the right adjustments and calls,” Lloyd said. “We must be doing something right.”

For now, the Zags, newly anointed No. 1, head to the league tournament in Las Vegas. Lloyd knows such honors go only so far.

“I don’t think those teams are going to care where we are ranked,” he said.

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