SPOKANE — Dan Monson remembers when he and Mark Few were “young, brash assistant coaches” two decades ago at Gonzaga, before the Bulldogs began their rise to national prominence in basketball.
“We’d drink a few beers,” Monson recalled Monday. “But I don’t know if we ever drank enough beers to think Gonzaga would be No. 1.”
Monson, now the head coach at Long Beach State, has good cause to hoist a couple of cold ones this week. On Monday, the Bulldogs became the first NCAA Division I basketball team from Washington ever ranked No. 1 in the country.
Monson said the honor is richly deserved, but not surprising at this point.
“I don’t know if it’s that great an accomplishment, to be honest, for this team, because I think this team can accomplish more than a No. 1 ranking on March 4th,” Monson said in a telephone interview from Long Beach, Calif.
“I … think their best mark this season is still to come, but it’s an unbelievable accomplishment for this program.”
Gonzaga, a Catholic school with a recent enrollment under 8,000 that moved up from the NAIA ranks to NCAA Division I in 1958-59, received 51 first-place votes from the 65 sportswriters who make up The Associated Press Top 25 voting panel. Gonzaga became the fifth team voted No. 1 this season.
The Bulldogs (29-2) switched places with No. 2 Indiana (25-4), which earned seven first-place votes. Third-ranked Duke (25-4) picked up five first-place votes. The other two were garnered by fifth-ranked Georgetown (23-4).
In the USA Today Poll of coaches, Gonzaga received 29 of 31 first-place votes. The others went to No. 3 Kansas (25-4) and No. 6 Louisville (24-5).
A school spokesperson said coach Mark Few was not available to the media Monday. No explanation was given, but Few did release a statement.
“It’s great for the program, great for the school, great for the city of Spokane and the region and the entire Northwest,” Few said.
Gonzaga’s regular weekly media session is scheduled for today. Assistant coach Tommy Lloyd and starters Mike Hart and Gary Bell Jr. were made available Monday to discuss the No. 1 ranking.
“It’s an honor for us to be the first team to do it,” said Bell, the former Kentridge High School star. “There’s so many great teams that played here before us.”
“Obviously, you’re excited, because it’s the culmination of a lot of hard work,” Lloyd said. “But being a coach, by nature, it’s, ‘What’s the next thing?’ and you kind of move on forward real quick.”
All three men dismissed the “pressure” of being No. 1.
“We have a mature team, guys that really love to play basketball,” Bell said.
“It should be a cool thing,” Hart said. “It shouldn’t be a burden.”
“We have a mature group of guys that have a lot of experience,” Lloyd said.
Monson, who remains close friends with Few, said he’s videotaped and watched every Gonzaga game this season. Monson coached at Gonzaga for 11 years – the last two as head coach before he went to Minnesota in 1999 and was replaced by Few – and he says this is the best Bulldogs team ever.
“They’re the deepest team,” Monson said. “They’re the biggest team. They’re the most balanced. They’re not dependent on any one guy.
“They have so many different ways to beat you. I think they’re the best defensive team they’ve ever had.”
Gonzaga carries a 12-game winning streak into Saturday night’s semifinals at the West Coast Conference tournament in Las Vegas. The top-seeded Bulldogs eared a two-bye spot in the semis because they finished first in league play at 16-0.
The title game is set for Monday evening. Senior forward Elias Harris, addressing a sellout crowd after Saturday’s victory at the McCarthey Athletic Center, drew roars of approval when he revealed Gonzaga’s plan of attack for the WCC tournament.
“Go down to Vegas and kick some you know what!” Harris shouted.