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Giant-slayer Gonzaga ascends to No. 1 in AP poll

Long climb to the top

Published: Tuesday, March 5, 2013 11:17 p.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, March 6, 2013 1:58 p.m. CDT
Caption
(Jed Conklin)
Gonzaga's Mike Hart (30) gets cheers from teammates as he gives a speech on the night of his last home game in the second half on Saturday. Gonzaga is ranked No. 1 by the Associated Press for the first time in school history.

SPOKANE, Wash. — It means nothing, and yet it means everything.

Gonzaga’s men’s basketball program achieved a height Monday that once would have been deemed unimaginable, being voted No. 1 in both major-college polls for the first time in school history.

The honor won’t help the Zags win games in the NCAA tournament just ahead, and it could even be a burden, bringing with it intense media scrutiny and the inevitable loss of the underdog status that has served Gonzaga so well.

But for a little Jesuit school far from the mainstream of power-broker conferences in college athletics, it’s a signal occasion, one that brought a celebratory feel to its campus when the news broke.

“It’s a wonderful thing for the team, and more broadly, for all those who have supported it,” said Thayne McCulloh, the Gonzaga University president, who got the news via text at 9 a.m., straight-up, just as The Associated Press poll was released.

At lunch hour on a sunny but chilly day, there was an upbeat air in the middle of campus.

“It’s really exciting,” said Patrick Lunney, a sophomore from Boulder, Colo. “Everyone around campus is going nuts.”

They might have had a sugar high. The school’s food-service provider laid out a 21-foot-long sheet cake with blue frosting in the shape of a No. 1, and students were free to dig in.

To understand the unlikely nature of the Zags’ feat, consider that the team they supplanted at the top of the rankings, Indiana, had won five national championships by the time Gonzaga won its first NCAA tournament game in 1999.

Even as there’s a mythical nature to the ranking, the top spot is occupied almost exclusively by basketball royalty. Gonzaga (29-2) is the first AP No. 1 in more than three seasons not to have won a national title. The Zags are also the first Division I school in the state to top one of the polls.

A clerk in the Gonzaga bookstore said at midafternoon that orders for Zags gear, especially No. 1-themed apparel, had the “phone ringing off the hook. It’s insane.”

Shortly before that, Mike Hart, a forward from Portland, sounded the two-pronged mantra coming from coaches and players – that the vote is a momentous honor, but it’s secondary to the mission of a deep run in the NCAA tournament.

“It’s something they can never take away from us,” he said, “this group of guys, 12 to 15 of us in the locker room.”

Gonzaga’s climb to this pinnacle is especially meaningful to a lot of people around here, because they’ve been at the school so long. That includes the coach, Mark Few, who arrived as a graduate assistant coach in 1990, and Mike Roth, who has been athletic director for 15 years and was an assistant coach here three decades ago.

“The perspective of where we were, to where we are today, is mind-boggling,” Roth said. “It’s something a lot of people never dreamt could happen. It’s humbling. We know our roots. We know how special this is, and how hard it is, for sure.”

Sunday, Few recalled a time in his early years as an assistant under longtime, hard-charging head coach Dan Fitzgerald, when the Zags were so cash-strapped that coaches often used a car, not a plane, to recruit in California. Sometimes they slept in it.

Assistants such as Few and Dan Monson dreamed big. It was Monson who coached the first of Gonzaga’s 14 straight trips to the NCAA tournament, an Elite Eight run in 1999.

“When we got there, the only thing we knew about the West Coast Conference was from Fitz,” Monson said. “His stamp is all over the program and he doesn’t get enough credit. But he would tell us it was the worst job in the league, with the worst weather, that there were no players (recruits) in the area, with the worst facilities besides maybe Saint Mary’s, and if you could finish in the middle of the league you’ve done about as well as you’re going to do here.”

But the young assistants had bigger ideas, and when Monson took over in 1997, they began scheduling harder and recruiting better.

Still, says Monson, now coaching at Long Beach State, “Even as cocky, young and brash as we were, we never thought we could be No. 1. We had a lot of beers together, but we never had that many.”

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