Season after title loss, No. 7 Gonzaga rising as March nears
SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Coming off a loss in the NCAA championship game, Gonzaga began this season with a bit of an edge. Not for that 71-65 defeat by North Carolina, but because coaches in the West Coast Conference predicted the Zags would finish second in the league this year.
Coach Mark Few said his staff didn’t care about the diminished expectations.
“But I think the kids did,” he said.
Picked to wind up behind St. Mary’s, the Zags are No. 7 and rising. They’ve won their sixth consecutive title and are seeded No. 1 heading into the WCC tournament in Las Vegas, with their first game on Saturday.
Gonzaga has won 11 straight games since losing to now-No. 22 Saint Mary’s at home. Always in the March mix, Few’s team seems to be peaking at the right time.
The program lost four key players from last season’s team, accounting for 62 percent of the scoring, and experts wondered if this might be a down year for the Zags.
That didn’t sit well with the players.
“I have never heard of a team coming off the national championship game getting picked second in its league,” senior guard Silas Melson said after Gonzaga beat BYU to wrap up the league title on Saturday.
“I just know we had pieces back ... that contributed to last year’s team,” guard Josh Perkins said. “I just felt we deserved to be picked to win it.”
“We weren’t, which is fine,” Perkins said. “Pick who you want, but at the end of the day, you’ll see who the No. 1 seed is in Vegas.”
A conference title seemed iffy on Jan. 18, when Saint Mary’s came to the McCarthey Athletic Center and inflicted a rare home loss on the Zags, 74-71, to take sole possession of first place.
But the Zags haven’t lost since. They won at Saint Mary’s, 78-65, in the rematch, and survived close games in many of their other contests.
They kept finding ways to win.
A recent game against Pepperdine was a good example. The Waves closed within 66-64 with 7 ½ minutes left in the game, and seemed to have the momentum. But Gonzaga outscored them 15-3 the rest of the way to seal the win.
“We needed to win this game,” said senior Johnathan Williams, who had 18 points and 12 rebounds, including two dunks in the closing stretch. “And basically we started getting stops and rebounds.”
The win broke a three-year streak of losing in the home finale, also known as Senior Night.
Pepperdine coach Marty Wilson was impressed.
“I’m blown away and tip my hat to Mark and what he’s done,” Wilson said. “It’s remarkable, not just to have the success, but to sustain it in domination form.”
Afterward, Few took some time to focus on the importance of reaching 25 wins for the 11th consecutive season. Only Kansas, at 12, has a longer streak.
“Those are hard to come by, man,” Few said. “Really hard to come by in college basketball.
“I don’t take them for granted. Staff doesn’t and nor do our players, because they’re the ones out there fighting and making the plays to get it done,” he said.
Indeed, Gonzaga’s most singular achievement is to sustain a Top 25 program for two decades.
The numbers are overwhelming.
Gonzaga has won at least 25 games for 18 of the past 20 seasons. It has produced 21 straight 20-win seasons, and 19 consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament.
The Zags have won or shared 16 of the past 17 conference regular-season titles. This season, they have six players averaging at least 9.9 points per game, making life difficult for opposing defenses.
Few said the balanced scoring is a sign of a special team. Seven different players have scored at least 20 points in a game this season.
“That shows character and a winning spirit, when there’s a lot of selfish spirits out there in the world of basketball right now,” Few said.
For more AP college basketball coverage: http://collegebasketball.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP_Top25