Dave Boling

Dave Boling: These No. 1 Zags are finally made for the long run

Gonzaga’s Josh Perkins, left, speaks with coach Mark Few during the second half of the Zags’ 74-64 win over Saint Mary's last week in Moraga, Calif.
Gonzaga’s Josh Perkins, left, speaks with coach Mark Few during the second half of the Zags’ 74-64 win over Saint Mary's last week in Moraga, Calif. AP

Ah, the rite of impending spring, dismissing the Zags.

They’re overrated. Their conference is a cakewalk. They’ll bomb out in the tournament.

Some seasons, those are valid opinions, and the results disappoint.

Sometimes the criticism is just force of habit, or jealousy vented by fans of programs with greater resources and lesser results.

The Gonzaga men’s basketball team is undefeated (26-0), ranked No. 1 in the nation (for the past three weeks), and — if all that holds steady — it will be a top seed when the team enters its 19th consecutive NCAA tournament in March.

So if you’re still eager to doubt and forecast doom, it’s all set up for you.

Anything short of a Final Four appearance this season will validate your skepticism, eh?

Seems to me, though, that this team isn’t going to cooperate.

Coach Mark Few’s West Coast Conference powerhouse seems built to take the program’s next big step.

It’s hard to unequivocally proclaim this the best Zags team ever, going back to the 1999 Elite Eight club that got this streak started.

But it’s fair to view this as the least fallible roster in that long line, the club least vulnerable to an early ouster, the least likely to fall short of its potential.

Even the best GU teams of the past could get upset if an opponent shut down one key player, or a big guard might create a defensive mismatch, or a hot-shooting team could exploit their perimeter, or foul trouble would expose a lack of depth under the basket.

This bunch? Not nearly so likely.

As ESPN commentator Jay Bilas said, “It certainly is their most balanced team; they’ve got four really good guards and four really good big guys.”

Eight different players have led the Zags in scoring this season, and five players average in double figures.

The Zags are the only team in the nation in the top five in offensive efficiency (No. 2) and defensive efficiency (No. 1). As Bilas pointed out, there’s little argument this is the best defensive team they’ve ever had.

The West Coast Conference schedule leaves them open to criticism, but they have played four teams in the top 25 and beaten them all.

Gonzaga’s trip to No. 20 Saint Mary’s on Saturday looked like the last chance the Zags might stumble, but they cruised to a 74-64 victory in a display of efficiency and versatility.

It didn’t matter that point guard Nigel Williams-Goss was sitting with a couple of first-half fouls or big man Przemek Karnowski was on the bench with a tweaked ankle, the Zags plugged in a talented backup and just continued to roll.

To power through 26 games without a hiccup — regardless of the level of competition on a nightly basis — is a testimony to this club’s focus.

Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett afterward had a comment for those who want to downplay GU’s achievements: “They haven’t had a close game in 2 1/2 months. People say this and that about them, but nobody’s come close to beating them yet. They haven’t had a team that’s been this dominant.”

Fair assessment.

While the string of NCAA appearances has been astounding, the results haven’t always seemed satisfying. The Zags had a five-year stretch of second-round NCAA tournament losses (2010-2014) that sometimes looked like underachieving.

But their Elite 8 loss in 2015 came at the hands of Duke, the eventual national champion, and last year, they fell in the Sweet 16 to Syracuse, a Final Four team.

The table seems set.

This team is talented, disciplined, deep and versatile. They are impeccably coached and prepared. It’s a roster filled with thoroughbreds for whom the big stage is nothing new.

All they’ve done is step up and meet every challenge all season.

And it seems likely they’re going to continue for a long time.

Dave Boling: 253-597-8440, @DaveBoling

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