March Madness is imminent if not already here. And a quick glance at the men’s standings reveals a surprise. On Monday, Gonzaga became the nation’s No. 1 team in both major polls for the first time in school history. This has come as a surprise to fans in and around Spokane, Wash., and even to some members of the team. Jim Meehan of the Spokane Spokesman-Review joined Bill Littlefield to talk about the sudden primacy of the Bulldogs.
BL: Tell me a little bit about the atmosphere in Spokane when people found out Monday that the local men’s team was No. 1 in the land.
JM: Well it’s obviously an exciting time, and a historical moment for the program. They’re up there in front of Duke, in front of Kansas, Michigan St., all the powers in college basketball. A very exciting time for the…Northwest.
BL: Gonzaga was ranked the 21st best team in the country in the preseason poll, which shows how much they knew. What have they done that’s allowed them to rocket up to No. 1?
JM: Well they always play a very difficult non-conference schedule. With losing just two non-conference games and then going through the conference season 16-0. A 29-2 record. Kind of a steady march up the rankings. Indiana dropped a game in their conference, kind of opened the door for Gonzaga, and the Zags kept winning, and lo and behold, a No. 1 besides their name in the polls.
BL: Can you pinpoint one or two particularly important players?
JM: Yeah, they’ve got an All-American candidate, a Player of the Year candidate in Kelly Olynyk. He’s a seven-foot forward from Kamloops, British Columbia. A very skilled player – you know at seven feet he’s still able to handle the ball. He can do a lot of things guards can do — pass and dribble and get his own shot. Besides Kelly there’s a young man from Germany named Elias Harris — probably would be a star on any other team. And they surround them with a couple nice shooting guards from the outside, Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell. It’s a combination that works very well.
BL: You pointed out in a column earlier this week that Gonzaga’s top ranking will benefit the conference in which they play. How so?
JM: For the WCC [West Cost Conference] to get a team to the No. 1 ranking brings a lot of attention, a lot of notoriety, and it’s not easy to do. I mean Gonzaga had to win 29 games. They’re the first WCC team to be No. 1 in the polls since 1977. Memphis, which played in Conference USA, was the last team outside the power six conferences to be No.1, and that was during the 2007-08 season.
BL: Gonzaga won 12 straight games to end the regular season. Should they win the West Coast Conference tournament, might they be a No. 1 seed at the Big Dance?
JM: Well it would certainly help their chances. Right now they are on the No. 1 seed line. It’s an advantage with who you will play against a little bit. And I think if they go 31-2 and finish out with 14 wins in a row and a tournament championship at the WCC, they would put themselves in position to earn that No. 1 seed.