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Monday, March 4, 2013
Poll Thoughts: Zags on the mountaintop

By Eamonn Brennan


College hoops polls might be inconsequential noise, but that doesn't make the arguments any less fun. In that spirit, I present the creatively named Poll Thoughts, which you can expect every Monday until the season is over.

The polls don't matter.

We've said this all season; it's our standard disclaimer. Hey, let's talk about the polls -- it's a good argument, it's fun -- but for the sake of all that is holy, do not take any of this stuff too seriously. It's just a poll.

But there are rare instances in which the polls do mean something more than a week's worth of bragging rights. There are times when a team's appearance in the Top 25, or more specifically its ascent to the No. 1 overall spot, isn't just about a made-for-casual-fans snapshot of the college basketball landscape or a quick consensus of the season to date. In those cases, it's something much more. In those cases, not unlike Batman, the No. 1 spot becomes a symbol.

So it was with Michigan earlier this season, and so it is again today, as the Gonzaga Bulldogs are the No. 1 team in the country for the first time in program history.

The Bulldogs got there by dominating their league and finishing 16-0 once more, something they've done a handful of times in their past decade-plus as one of the nation's most consistent college hoops programs, "mid-major" label sold separately. And even though the Zags are just the third team in the past 20 years to rise to the top from 21st or worse in the preseason poll, in some sense, this ranking really isn't all that big a deal. As Mark Few told USA Today's Nicole Auerbach:
"These kids have been ranked their whole careers," Few said. "Whether it was 20 or 10 or 5 or 2 or even 1, they've still been ranked. They've had a huge bull's-eye on their chest the entire time they've played at Gonzaga. This isn't something new.
"There might be a larger mass of (attention), but it's certainly not something new. We'll keep doing what we're doing. This group handles it really well. They don't get too caught up in it."

He's right: Gonzaga has been so good for so long that it is very much used to being ranked, whether No. 1 or otherwise. This isn't all happening at once, like some Saint Joe's-esque one-off miracle year. Few's program is consistently excellent. Its players know this drill.

Then again, this really is something more. Think about it: In 1999, a tiny school from the Pacific Northwest with a funny name stunned everyone in the NCAA tournament, toppling Minnesota, Stanford and Florida (the latter in one of the great finishes in tournament history) and immediately became synonymous with Cinderella. But the Zags did something funny: They didn't go away. Dan Monson took a job at Minnesota, Few stepped in, and Gonzaga kept winning, kept recruiting well, kept dominating the WCC, kept getting to the NCAA tournament. The Zags turned a year of unlikely success into 13 years of tournament appearances, into a program that can be ranked No. 1 for the first time in history and its coach credibly fails to bat an eye.

Being ranked No. 1 means a lot to any program. To a dominant Kentucky or Duke it means rightful success; to a long-suffering Indiana or Michigan it means resurrection.

To a program like Gonzaga, it is the culmination of a decade of work, a demolition of the barriers that are supposed to keep mid-majors in place and a testament to the best thing about college basketball: If you're good enough, everybody belongs.