America’s favorite underdogs are about to become America’s favorite, well, favorites.
Gonzaga, the small Catholic school in Spokane, Wash., that against all odds has built a basketball juggernaut, is one step away from the top ranking in the land.
If the second-ranked Zags, beat Portland on Saturday (they are 25-point favorites), they are expected to ascent to No. 1 for the first time. Losses by No. 1 Indiana, No. 3 Duke and No. 4 Michigan this week helped.
“Anytime you can do something you haven’t done in the history of the program, it would be an unbelievable accomplishment and really, really cool,” coach Mark Few said. “We’re running out of barriers to knock down.”
The Bulldogs (28-2, 15-0) clinched the West Coast Conference title late Thursday with a 70-65 win at BYU before 20,000 screamers. Their regular season ends Saturday, and the WCC tournament begins March 12 in Las Vegas.
Gonzaga wouldn’t be the first “mid-major” to be No. 1. Memphis and Cincinnati, then of Conference USA, have pulled it off in the last 20 years. San Francisco was No. 1 late in the 1976-77 season.
But in a wide-open year, this should be the Zags’ best shot at getting to the Final Four, a place they’ve never been despite 14 consecutive NCAA tournament trips.
Few teams have a 7-foot center like Kelly Olynyk, who averages 17.8 points, 7.1 rebounds and shoots 66.2 percent from the field.
Gonzaga has strong, experienced international flavor with guard Kevin Pangos (11.8 ppg) and Olynyk from Canada and senior forward Elias Harris (14.4 ppg, 7.5 rpg) from Germany.
Junior backup point guard David Stockton is the son of NBA Hall of Famer John Stockton.
The Zags are the NCAA’s No. 2 field-goal percentage team at 50.6, No. 3 in scoring margin (+18), No. 11 in rebound margin (+7.5) and No. 25 in field-goal defense (38.8).
Yep, they pretty much have it all.
Fans probably won’t see the Zags at the Erwin Center, though. They’ll likely get a shorter trip to San Jose, Calif., or Salt Lake City.
Actually, they’ve already been to Austin this season, scrimmaging Texas last fall. “We knew they were going to be really good back then,” Longhorns coach Rick Barnes said.
The new Big East
The so-called Catholic 7 schools that are breaking away from the Big East will buy the conference’s name and are in negotiations to start their league next season, according to published reports.
Oh, and they plan to take Butler and Xavier with them. Add those two to Georgetown, Marquette, Villanova, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Providence and DePaul, and you immediately have a top-six league.
Cavalry is coming
No. 3 Duke (24-4, 11-4 ACC) has a revenge match against No. 5 Miami (23-4, 14-1) on Saturday at 5 p.m. (ESPN). The bigger news is that forward Ryan Kelly (13.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg) expects to return from his broken foot next week.
With a healthy Kelly, the Blue Devils are one of about 10 teams that could win the national title. Without him, they probably miss the Final Four.
Big 12 update
Two league games Saturday have significant NCAA implications: Kansas State at Baylor and Iowa State at Oklahoma. Of those four, only K-State is safe for a bid. The latest projections have the Sooners as a 10 or 11 seed, the Cyclones on the bubble as an 11 or 12 and the Bears out of the tournament.
The NCAA tournament will play early-round games at the Erwin Center. Here are key dates leading up to that:
March 13-16: Major conference tournaments, including Big 12
March 17: Selection Sunday
March 19-20: NCAA First Four games, Dayton, Ohio
March 21-24: NCAA second, third rounds (Austin games on 22nd, 24th)