|Gonzaga has soared through this season and now has its sights on a No. 1 ranking. (bleacherreport.com)|
"Heavy lies the crown" has been a common theme this college basketball season as No. 1-ranked teams have dropped at a remarkable rate.
Indiana is the latest to fall while at the top, losing on the road to Minnesota 77-73 Tuesday. With the loss, the crown could go to a new king in Gonzaga. This would be a rare shift in command, as rarely do teams from mid-major conferences reach the summit that is the No. 1 ranking.
The Bulldogs fully deserve the honor, which would be the first No. 1 ranking in school history. Gonzaga has the best record in the country, 27-2, and if you've actually taken the time to watch the Bulldogs play, you'll notice they are one of the most balanced and complete teams in the country.
The discussion this season has been if this squad is Mark Few's best. Just being in that discussion means it's a pretty good team. Junior 7-footer Kelly Olynyk is one of the best players in the country this year, and the combination of he and senior Elias Harris, with underrated Sam Dower as the first big man off the bench, make a dominant front court. Olynyk and Harris's numbers are very similar as Olynyk averages 17.7 ppg and seven rpg, while Harris is second in points at 14.5 per game and 7.4 rebounds. Kevin Pangos is a tremendous scoring point guard, Gary Bell can also score at will — although he's having a bit of a sophomore slump — and David Stockton shows shades of his dad John with amazing passes. Then you have a glue guy like Mike Hart, who will do all the little things necessary to win and will work harder than everyone else on the court. Every team needs a Mike Hart.
But I know what you're going to say: Gonzaga plays in a weak conference. There's no denying that. St. Mary's should make the NCAA Tournament and BYU is tough but having an average-but-down year (Gonzaga is on the road tonight against BYU in the toughest game remaining on the schedule). Other than that, there's not much competition in the league. But worrying about the conference's strength is narrow-minded thinking.
Gonzaga has an RPI of 10 and a strength of schedule of 61, even being in the WCC. The Bulldogs countered this by playing a brutal non-conference schedule (a 23 SOS in non-conference games) that they successfully completed. The Zags went 5-0 against Big 12 teams this season (K-State, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Baylor), while also beating Davidson, Clemson and Washington State. As for the two season losses, it took a miraculous buzzer-beater by Butler at Hinkle Fieldhouse in January to win and the other was a loss against Illinois in early December after the Illini had just won the Maui Invitational and they were playing like a top 10 team.
But yet people still go back to the conference. Again, the WCC is weak this year and there's no going around it. But no matter how tough the competition, every highly ranked team has had slip-ups in conference play. Michigan just loss to Penn State, who was 0-14 in the Big Ten. Kansas lost to a dreadful TCU team. Georgetown lost to South Florida. Florida lost to Tennessee. Yet Gonzaga has yet to slip in conference play. In fact, in the last 10 games, the Bulldogs are defeating teams by an average of 22.7 points per game. Two of those wins were by more than 40, five were by 20 or more and nine by double digits. That is unreal. Only San Diego at home was ever close enough to win and the game was not as close at the end as the two-point score would seem.
This team has earned a No. 1 ranking; a ranking that is much more difficult for a team like Gonzaga to achieve. Memphis was No. 1 in 2008. UNLV reached No. 1 in 1990. But there are just a handful of teams outside the power six conferences that have been able to reach that milestone. The list should expand next week and Gonzaga should receive a new crown, because weak conference and all, they've earned it.
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