As February Madness continued last week – with top-10 teams stung with six defeats, Gonzaga crept up to No. 5 in the AP college basketball poll released Monday.
The coaches voting in the USA Today poll were even more appreciative, rating them No. 3 behind Duke and Indiana.
Lofty territory, yes, but not unprecedented. The Zags finished No. 3 in the ’04 season (No. 2 in coaches’ poll), and in the top six two other times.
But there’s a very important difference this season: More than any of their highly regarded predecessors, the 2013 Zags seem built for success in March, in the NCAA tournament, where success has been harder to come by lately.
As ESPN’s Jay Bilas said Monday afternoon when assessing the Zags’ future: “They’ve got an NBA front line. … I think they absolutely can reach Atlanta (site of the Final Four).”
The Zags phenomenon came rolling out of nowhere in 1999 with an Elite Eight appearance, when they were nipped by eventual national champion Connecticut in the regional finals.
They’ve had four Sweet 16 appearances since then (2000, ’01, ’06 and ’09), but lost each time. There have been a variety of reasons: They’ve run into hot teams, gone cold at the wrong time, fallen into foul trouble, or had bad matchups exploited.
But not only does this 23-2 team have no obvious weakness, it has redundant talent at just about every position.
Coach Mark Few claims to pay little attention to the rankings, saying it’s something his kids follow.
And if that’s the case, he’s probably entirely unaware of the fact that if North Carolina loses on the road at No. 2 Duke on Wednesday, Few will nose ahead of Roy Williams as the active coach with the best winning percentage in college basketball (.79868 to Williams’ .79792).
To be neck-and-neck with Roy Williams says a great deal about where Few and his program stand.
After the win Saturday over Loyola Marymount, Few was asked about the rankings, and he said he warned his players about taking them too seriously.
“It’s a fickle, fickle description of where everyone is. I think the biggest barometer out there is that we put together a great season and we have accrued a lot of wins, and those teams we’ve beat are out there winning games, too.”
You have to pick your poison when playing any top team. But with the Zags, it’s lethal either way. You can zone to try to slow the big guys, and the guards can kill you. But apply man-to-man pressure to stop the guards and the big guys can dunk you into submission.
If a key Zags player gets in foul trouble, no sweat: a backup like a Sam Dower comes in and lays 20 points on you, as he did at Butler.
That depth is a key difference between this being just another highly ranked Zags team and one that can make a deep, deep tournament push.
Another is the level of the high-end talent. Junior center Kelly Olynyk finished up his sophomore season in 2011 as a gangly 7-footer who had some perimeter skills, but after a redshirt season he may finish his junior season as the best big man of the modern Zags era.
The native of basketball hotbed Kamloops, B.C. spent the redshirt season bulking up to 240 pounds and translating his perimeter skills into a game that works with stunning efficiency in the paint.
Making 65 percent from the field and 80 percent from the free-throw line, Olynyk averages 17.7 points and 6.8 rebounds in only 25 minutes of play a game.
There are whole games when he doesn’t miss a shot, hitting all nine shots and all eight free throws against BYU for 26 points with nine rebounds. Against Santa Clara, he barely missed (12-for-15 field goals and 8-for-9 free throws) to finish with 33 points with nine rebounds.
It might be hard to keep him for his final year of eligibility since he has the looks of a first-round draft pick, perhaps even a lottery choice with a strong finish to this season.
Before you argue that our young athletes should finish school, Olynyk already graduated in December, picking up a business degree with a 3.53 GPA and is currently in grad school working toward an MBA.
Olynyk and the rest of the Zags might have more trouble than usual focusing on school work this spring, because this season looks like it could go a week or two longer than usual.Dave Boling: 253-597-8440 dave.boling@ thenewstribune.com @DaveBoling