(If this website had a "facetious" emoji, right now I’d insert it.)
I tweeted this earlier Monday: Honk, if back in 1980; or 1993; or 2012 even, you’d believed by the end of the millennium’s second decade that the Zags would have made excursions to the top of the polls in four different seasons – with four virtually different casts.
Surely you jest.
Before Gonzaga made it to the top in the polls in 2013, I’d always sensed among its fandom that getting to No. 1 was nigh-impossible, even on a handful of occasions when the Zags edged into the top five. There were too many Dukes and Kansases and Kentuckys in the way.
(In fact, real Zagnuts may remember that as GU stood poised to claim the No. 1 spot with a late-season Indiana loss in '13, here came third-rated Duke, beating No. 5 Miami, and there was a large measure of belief that voters wouldn't, couldn't vote in the Zags given such fresh Blue Devil tracks. But they did.)
So I well remember when it happened in early March, 2013. I was in the office of GU president Thayne McCulloh, interviewing him, when he got the affirmative text. Hours later, there was the 20-foot-long blue-frosted sheet cake on a table in mid-campus with a “1” etched in. There was the quote from ex-Zags coach Dan Monson, when I asked him over the phone if, long ago, he and his staff had ever envisioned such a day. He said no, adding, “We drank a lot of beers together, but we never drank that many.”
I recall writing, “It means everything and it means nothing.” Everything, because it was so symbolic of Gonzaga’s improbable rise. Nothing, because a No. 1 ranking doesn’t help you win games (and in fact, it may have helped augur one of Gonzaga’s most painful losses, to Wichita State in the NCAA second round).
So what does being No. 1 mean today? Well, the “nothing” part still holds. And “everything” isn’t quite as forceful as it was that day in 2013, but it still invites a look at the bigger picture.
In the here and now, I’m shocked this team got to the top. I surmised it was overrated when preseason polls shoved it into the top 10. All it had lost from last spring were two NBA first-round draft picks, another NBA hopeful and the school’s career assist leader. Then came the Bahamas tournament and a startling succession of injuries. But still, wins over Oregon, and Washington and Arizona, none at home.
And in a season where the No. 1 ranking has been treated like a live electrical wire, here they are again.
This marks the 13th week Gonzaga has been ranked No. 1, including 2013, 2017 and 2019 (two stretches).
For perspective, consider the program whose story might come closest to Gonzaga’s – Butler. The other Bulldogs crashed the NCAA final game twice in a row, in 2010 and 2011, so they’ve had more high-end success than Gonzaga. But Butler has never been No. 1 in the polls. In fact, it’s only nosed into the top 10 a couple of times.
Downsides? Of course, there’s the old target-on-your-back standby. And inevitably, cue the legion of yard-barkers. Gonzaga-baiting – always great sport on the Internet -- may now crescendo. Just because it does.
I’ll say this: If Gonzaga’s lesser schedule going forward invites discussion that an onrushing Ohio State or Kansas or Louisville is more deserving in January, so be it. You don’t get to stay No. 1 by statute. This isn’t like royalty in England. And if you want to argue that one of those teams is a better choice for No. 1 today, knock yourself out. But you can’t dismiss Gonzaga’s eligibility – its worthiness – for the top spot on Dec. 23, 2019.
So big picture, taking into account everything from its NAIA roots, to Hank Anderson to John Stockton to Dan Fitzgerald, where does that leave us?