Gonzaga’s ascension to No. 1 is a long time coming. The Bulldogs are constantly fighting the perception of taking a perennial Cinderella ride to the NCAA Tournament. There are cobwebs over the pictures of John Stockton, Dan Dickau and Adam Morrison.
Maybe the giant-killing Zags accepted life as a mid-major on steroids.
It took coach Mark Few over a decade to change that way of thinking and on Monday Gonzaga finally outgrew its slipper.
“We still have a lot more to accomplish starting this weekend in Las Vegas” in the West Coast Conference Tournament, “and moving forward to the NCAA Tournament,” Few said. “This is a competitive group and one that doesn’t get distracted. We’re looking forward to the rest of the season and making it last as long as we can.”
Of the schools ranked No. 1 by the Associated Press this season – Indiana, Duke, Louisville and Michigan are the others – Gonzaga has been the most consistent. Bing Crosby’s alma mater made national waves by going 29-2 overall and 16-0 in WCC play using a deep bench of 10 players who average at least 10.9 minutes a game.
“They have been really, really focused,” Few said. “They haven’t taken their eye off the target game in and game out and they have done a real nice job with that. I think that we have been so consistent with our effort and preparation that that has been probably the most impressive thing about it.”
The Bulldogs, who open conference tournament play today, are suddenly a No. 1 seed in Joe Lunardi’s ESPN Bracketology. Seven-foot Canadian Kelly Olynyk, a one-time 6-foot-2 high school point guard, has a chance to be a first team All-American. Meanwhile, Few remains a hot coach who won’t be seduced by so-called “greener pastures.”
The program has never been a revolving door. Dan Monson, who took over in 1985 from Dan Fitzgerald, put the program in the national spotlight with an Elite Eight appearance in 1999. Few, who has won better than 80 percent of his games since taking over in July 1999, has brought it even higher.
“We are going to go down to Vegas to win the tournament,” Few said. “We want to win the conference tournament. We will then go into the NCAA Tournament to try to win it. I don’t think that we are too caught up with what number we are at, or what seed we will be. We are just going to go play.”
The one team in the country that can’t wait for the season to end is winless Grambling State, which completed the regular season 0-27 and 0-18 in SWAC play. Statistics confirm that the Tigers are the worst team in college basketball.
Of the 27 losses, 19 came by 20 or more points and the Tigers haven’t lost a game by less than double digits. Grambling lost by 40 four times and was pounded by Auburn by 50. The Tigers rank among the nation’s worst on offense (49.6 ppg.) and rank 340th out of 345 in defense (77.0 ppg). Grambling shoots just 36.3 percent from the field and 58.5 percent from the free-throw line, which rank in the nation’s bottom five. They rank 313th in rebounding, 314th in assists, and 346th in field-goal percentage. On Wednesday, Grambling opens the SWAC Tournament against Alabama A&M and loss No. 28 is a given. The Tigers have lost by an average of 26 points in the two matchups against A&M this season.
Towson experienced similar misery last season after finishing 1-31, including a 22-game losing streak. This year, Towson improved to 18-13, an NCAA record for the biggest turnaround. It was also the most victories for the program since 1993-94, when the Tigers were 21-9 and won the Big South championship. The Tigers finished tied for second place in the Colonial Athletic Association with Delaware, but is barred from the postseason because of NCAA-mandated APR sanctions.
Providence, thought to be a year away from making any postseason noise, has a chance to sneak into the NCAAs. Since a 10-11 start – 2-7 in the Big East – Ed Cooley’s group has gone 7-1, with victories over Cincinnati, Notre Dame and Villanova, who are all NCAA-bound. There’s still work to do for the Friars (17-12, 9-8 Big East) starting today at surprising Connecticut (19-10, 9-8). If Providence can make a decent run in the Big East Tournament, the Friars will be given careful consideration for an at-large berth.
Bob Huggins has mellowed over the years and could certainly use a hugg as West Virginia has crumbled in its first season in the Big 12. Usually a contender in the Big East, the Mountaineers (13-17, 6-11) are tied for seventh place with Texas in the 10-team league. Huggins is guaranteed his first losing record in conference play for the first time since the 1984-85 season, his first at Akron.
Ohio’s D.J. Cooper should be on the wish list of more NBA scouts. The obvious knock on Cooper is his size (generously listed at 6-foot) and while he has good speed, he’s not considered a blur but his shooting percentage is at a career best and he is near his career high in assists. His career rebounding average is nearly 4.5 a game.
This week, the senior guard became the first player in NCAA history to register 2,000 career points, 900 assists, 600 rebounds and 300 steals. He’s flashy and has the ability to hit critical shots in clutch situations, as he did Tuesday against the University at Buffalo. I don’t see much of a difference between Cooper and Nick Van Exel, who played in the league from 1993-06.
“The minute he walks out the door, you’re not going to see another one like him for a long, long time,” said Ohio coach Jim Christian, the one-time Kent State coach. “I’ve said that only one other time. When I had Antonio Gates I told our staff after his last game, ‘Enjoy that because you’re never going to see another one.’ It’s probably the same thing with D.J.”
In early February, Bill Self was complaining about how Kansas lacked a proven point guard, a knock on senior Elijah Johnson. In a Feb. 2 loss at home against Oklahoma State, Johnson was 3 of 14 with four turnovers.
Johnson’s play remains uneven, but in three wins against Iowa State, West Virginia and Texas Tech, Johnson averaged 9.6 assists while committing nine turnovers and had a 39-point outburst in an overtime win against Iowa State. In the Jayhawks’ 79-42 romp over Texas Tech on Monday, Johnson distributed 12 assists. Kansas has as good a chance of any to advance to the Final Four, if Johnson continues to be in the giving mood.
Hard to believe USC is even considering Tim Floyd for its opening. Floyd coached at SC from 2006-09 before resigning amid a scandal that involved his recruitment of O.J. Mayo – reportedly $1,000 in cash to Mayo’s “mentor” – but Teflon Tim was eventually cleared of any shenanigans and took the job at UTEP. Even more shocking: Floyd is talking about the job with the media, telling the Los Angeles Times that his meeting with the school “went well” and that he believes people “should know that USC reached out, that no violations were found by the NCAA with USC basketball.”
Maybe not, but the fact that SC is even reaching out to Floyd is shocking considering how NCAA issues have knocked the football program from the nation’s elite and Floyd isn’t innocent when it comes to controversy. There are better candidates for the Trojans, like Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins, Pitt’s Jamie Dixon and Harvard’s Tommy Amaker.