Will Bulldogs Take Up Residence In Perilous Top 5 Of Polls?

By Matt Breach

Special to GoZags.com

                  SPOKANE, Wash. - Taking up residence near the top of the rankings has been a perilous proposition of late. Most stays, as any number of teams can attest, have been neither pleasant nor extended.

              Within the last seven days alone, four of the top five teams have all lost. And forget being No. 1. That's a spot no team should desire in this upset-filled world of college basketball. The team believed to be the sport's best has been knocked off each of the last five weeks.

               So were folks inside the McCarthey Athletic Center fretting Saturday? Not really. Well, maybe a little, at least at first. The Bulldogs, however, did avoid the fate of so many of their highly regarded brethren.

              Sixth-ranked Gonzaga withstood a gritty effort from Loyola Marymount to claim a 74-55 win in a West Coast Conference tussle. It was much more competitive than the 45-point blowout nine days ago in Los Angeles, but the Bulldogs' talent ultimately proved too much for the last-place Lions.

             "I think everybody needs to understand it's hard to get wins, it's hard," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "I know you people think we were going to win by 45 - we weren't going to win by that here. That's a competitive team."

            Few is right. Every win should be valued because the losses, which will inevitably happen, can come against any opponent. Indiana and Duke, the gold standard of college basketball, have each lost twice this season when they sat atop the polls. Kansas, once coached by the game's inventor, has inexplicably lost three straight games after winning its previous 18.

            "That's a wakeup call to us or a reminder to us that we've got to bring it every night," Gonzaga senior Mike Hart said, "because somebody's going to bring us their best game every night."

            Gonzaga, which has won six in a row, is now 23-2 overall and 10-0 in the WCC. Given all the upsets this week, the Bulldogs are certain to inch closer to the top of the polls when they are released Monday. Not that their coach cares where they land.

            "My kids are into that. That shows you what I think of stuff like that," Few said. "I don't want to totally diss my 10-year-old, who follows that stuff very close, but I'd say it's on about a 10-year-old level."

            Saturday's game against LMU was certainly not with its nervous moments, especially in the first half when Anthony Ireland was busy putting on his own one-man show. The junior guard helped LMU snare a small lead five minutes into the contest.

            Even after Gonzaga reclaimed the advantage, Ireland kept the Lions close. It was a single-digit margin until the final minute of the first half, when Kelly Olynyk scored to put the Zags up by 11. Ireland finished with 30 points and three steals.

            "They came in here ready to fight," Few said of the Lions, who have just one WCC win. "They've got some very talented players, just like all Division I teams do. You got a guy like Ireland - he's a tough, tough guy. He's not going to quit."

            Gonzaga never seemed to feel threatened by LMU after halftime, building a lead as big as 21. The performance was highlighted, as it has been most of the season, by the Bulldogs' balance. Olynyk and Kevin Pangos each tallied 20 points while Elias Harris (16 points, 10 rebounds) recorded his fourth double-double of the season.

            If the Bulldogs keep furnishing outcomes like this, they could easily crack the 30-win plateau and set themselves up for a deep run in March. Which begs the question: Just how good are these Bulldogs?

            "I think we are one of the best teams in the country and we can compete with anyone any given night," Hart said. "We have the ability, the talent and the teamwork in this locker room to be able to do big things and play with anybody."

            That just might be reflected in polls, too. But a true measure of Gonzaga's ability won't be available for a while, until the last game is played in Atlanta in early April.

            "That's a fickle, fickle description of where everything's at," Few said of the rankings. "The biggest barometer out there is that we have put together a great season and we have accrued a lot of wins and those teams we've beat are out there winning games."

            Still, come Monday the Zags will find themselves in what has been a precarious position for so many other teams. And with a game against rival Saint Mary's looming, they must be wary of life near the top. Especially this season.

            "We've got to be prepared because some of these other teams are going down around the country," Hart said, "and we don't want to be one."



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