Regardless of the lineup, regardless of the season, the Gonzaga Bulldogs remain one of the marvels of college basketball.
Like this year. Lose four starters from an Elite Eight team, including two NBA lottery picks, and it’s no big deal for the Zags.
They’ve become the first team this topsy-turvy season to spend three weeks at No. 1 in The Associated Press Top 25. They’re projected by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi as a No. 1 seed for their annual NCAA Tournament run.
It never gets old for the mid-major darlings, whose campus in Spokane, Washington, is noted for a statue of Bing Crosby in front of the Crosby Student Center. After all, there are standards and expectations to live up to.
After the Zags came out flat and needed to rally to win their opening two West Coast Conference games, the breadth of their talent was on display Thursday night as they obliterated hopelessly outmanned San Diego on the Toreros’ home court. Led by 6-foot-11 Filip Petrusev, the Bulldogs had a double-digit lead within five minutes, led 53-16 at halftime, and won 94-50.
There’s a long way to go still, including two games against Saint Mary’s, which tripped up the Bulldogs in the championship game of the WCC tournament last March.
But with the Zags, it’s never too early to ask: Is this their year? They’ve made it to the NCAA Tournament 21 straight seasons, the last 20 under coach Mark Few. They reached the Final Four for the first time in 2017 and lost to North Carolina in the championship game. They’ve reached the Elite Eight three times in the last five seasons and have made nine Sweet 16 appearances under Few.
“If we play like we did tonight, it feels like it,” said Corey Kispert, the lone returning starter off last year’s team that finished 33-4 after losing to Texas Tech in the regional finals. “If we play with a chip on our shoulder and a little bit of an edge, we can beat anybody in the country.”
Former Gonzaga guard Dan Dickau, now part of the Zags’ local television broadcast team, understands why people always want to know how far they can go in the NCAAs.
“It’s come to that point because the team, they reload, they don’t rebuild,” he said before Thursday night’s game.
Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke were NBA lottery picks off last year’s team, while Zach Norvell Jr. and Josh Perkins signed free agent contracts and are playing in the G League.
That left Kispert, a do-everything forward, as the only returning starter, although Killian Tillie is back after an injury-marred season.
Still, the Zags are the nation’s only team with six players averaging in double figures, with a seventh almost there. The starting five includes Petrusev (16.7 points), Kispert (14.1), Tillie (12.6), Joel Ayayi (11.2), and Ryan Woolridge (10.4). Admon Gilder averages 10.3 points, and Drew Timme is close behind at 9.2.
“This year, Tillie’s coming off injuries; you’ve got a lot of new pieces, grad transfers, so the way it’s all come together has been very impressive,” Dickau said. “So if this is the year to get back to a Final Four, possibly win it, it could be. A lot of it is because college basketball is so open this year.”
On Friday, the Zags were No. 7 in the NET metric, which replaced RPI as the primary method for NCAA Tournament seeding.
For the time being, the Zags are doing their best to protect their No. 1 ranking. They became the sixth team to earn the top spot after previous No. 1 Kansas lost to Villanova on Dec. 21.
“To be honest with you, I don’t even know who is No. 1,” Few said. “It’s just that kind of year. I really don’t. I’ve said it before, I think it’s kind of a silly exercise right now in this current year. But other people put that on us so it’s an honor and we need to live up to the honor. We need to play like we played tonight and respect that ranking and hold ourselves to our standard. I think there’s a bunch of really good teams out there and whoever can stay healthy and keep getting better will be the ones who move on.”
Gonzaga is ranked No. 1 for the fifth time in program history. They reached No. 1 for the first time in 2013, returned to the top spot in 2017 after a 22-0 start, and had two separate stays atop the poll last season.
“It’s something I’ve dealt with before since I’ve been here,” Kispert said. “It’s a big target on your back. You’re going to get everyone’s best shot and you’ve got to come out and play every single night. It’s a huge privilege to be the No. 1 team and you’ve got to play like it and you’ve got to practice like it and you’ve got to talk like it and act like it every single day.”
No one was happy with how they played in their first two WCC games. They trailed Portland at halftime before winning on the road, and then beat Pepperdine at home by only five points.
“We hold ourselves to a high standard and we clearly didn’t meet that,” Kispert said. “We were getting on ourselves and getting on each other. When you come here and you want to play a certain brand of basketball and you don’t live up to that, it’s disappointing. Coming out tonight and playing the way we did was big.”
Their next test comes Saturday afternoon at Loyola Marymount.
As usual, the Zags played a tough non-conference schedule in an attempt to get the best NCAA Tournament seed possible — and to bluntly talk about how weak the WCC is. They came through mostly unscathed.
They’ve won nine straight since their only loss, 82-64 on Nov. 29 to Michigan, which is now ranked No. 19, at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas. The day before, they beat Oregon, which was ranked No. 11 at the time and is now No. 9. They went on the road and beat two more Pac-12 teams, Washington, then No. 22 and now unranked, and Arizona, then No. 15 and now No. 24.
In a rarity, they were able to get North Carolina — which is having a bad year — to come to Spokane, and they beat the Tar Heels 94-81 on Dec. 18.
After routing their final two non-conference opponents, they struggled in the first two WCC games.
“I challenged them that there’s a standard that we hold ourselves to, and we didn’t do a great job hitting that standard,” Few said. “That’s kind of, to be honest with you, the first time we haven’t all year. We’ve had a pretty arduous schedule. It kind of stacked up on us, boom, boom, boom, and they’ve been pretty good about it.”
If there’s one concern, it’s depth. Few was able to get his starters off their feet in the second half Thursday night.
“Our depth is very low this year. It’s a challenge so I think we’re trying to play the long game and make sure they’re still fresh as we get into February and March,” he said.
Few has cultivated plenty of professional talent, including current NBA players Domantas Sabonis, Kelly Olynyk, Zach Collins, Hachimura, and Clarke.
Halfway through his postgame news conference Thursday night, Few was asked: “Filip has been great for you guys all year. What do you think he can bring to an NBA team?”
Few sighed, and said: “I mean, I have no idea. That’s for the NBA to decide. He’s a great kid, he’s improving rapidly. He’s got a long way to go though, especially on the defensive end. We’re trying to get him there. That, and just continue to grow his game. That’s for the NBA guys to figure out.”
That’s how it goes when you’re Gonzaga.
USD coach Sam Scholl has been in the WCC for two decades and remains impressed with Gonzaga.
“They’re tremendous. Every year, they’re going to beat you. They’re one of the best programs in the country. Not the West Coast, the country. It’s hard to put into words how impressive it is,” Scholl said.
Gonzaga has beaten USD 11 straight times, and 44 times in the last 47 meetings.
The things that stand out, Scholl said, are “the togetherness, the connectedness. They share the ball. They develop their players. Guys get better. They improve. Guys are always ready. Everyone in that uniform is ready to come out and make plays.”
“There’s many things that they do very, very well, but the thing for me over the course of 20-some odd years competing against them is that togetherness. I come out and I watch warmups and you see it right then, just how they get prepared to play and the excitement they have for each other’s success is really, really impressive. It’s something that I want to push our group to be.”