Sports

SIDELINES: Cinderella no more, Gonzaga sits atop the college basketball world

The Gonzaga University men
The Gonzaga University men's basketball team is ranked No. 1 for the first time in the history of the school with a 29-2 record.
— image credit: Photo courtesy Gonzaga University

In case you've been living under a rock, I will break the news that the Gonzaga Bulldogs are the top-ranked college basketball team in America. Let me repeat, the Gonzaga basketball team is the No. 1-ranked squad in the United States of America.

And, as the sports editor of the Federal Way Mirror, I get to write about whatever I want and I want to write about my alma mater. Deal with it.

The Bulldogs reached No. 1 in the Associated Press poll Monday for the first time in program history. Gonzaga (29-2) received 51 first-place votes and 1,607 points to outdistance No. 2 Indiana (seven first-place votes, 1,517 points) and other powerhouses like Duke, Kansas, Georgetown and about 200 spots above the University of Washington.

I have to be dreaming because it's truly unbelievable. I had the privilege of attending Gonzaga and witnessed the first-ever appearance by the Bulldogs in the NCAA Tournament back in 1995. It was my senior year and the Zags won three-straight games at the West Coast Conference Tournament before earning a 14th seed into the Big Dance. The Maryland Terrapins eventually beat up the Zags.

“The perspective of where we were, to where we are today, is mind-boggling,” Athletic Director Mike Roth told the Seattle Times. “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.”

The No. 1 ranking really doesn't mean a gosh darn thing. It doesn't guarantee a national championship or even a No. 1 seed into the NCAA Tournament. It's something that the "elite" programs like Duke and Kansas have achieved countless times over the years. It's ho-hum at places like North Carolina, Kentucky and Indiana.

But sitting atop the rankings means everything in Spokane and to all the Gonzaga alums scattered around the world. It's a wonderful thing and gives me a chance to bring the pompous University of Washington fans down a couple notches.

Gonzaga 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 (take that Husky fans).

I remember watching games in the old Martin Centre at Gonzaga, which resembled more of a high school gym than a place where the No. 1-ranked team in the nation would play. The Martin Centre had the old metal bleachers that would have to be moved in and out for games.

My buddies and I used to walk into the Martin Centre and literally sit wherever we wanted to watch the Bulldogs play. The only time we ever had any trouble finding a seat was when Gonzaga played the Steve Nash-led Santa Clara Broncos. During that game, the Martin Centre was at least half full.

But that all changed back in 1999. That's when the Gonzaga basketball program blew up and became the darlings of the NCAA Tournament. That was when Gonzaga rolled into the Elite 8 after wins over Minnesota, Stanford and Florida.

It was also the year that started the Bulldogs' current 14-year run (now 15) at the NCAA Tournament, which has included five Sweet 16's. The impressive run by the basketball program has also been felt off the court in Spokane.

An inflow of students have made their way to Gonzaga because of the national attention. In fact, Gonzaga felt a 65-percent increase in the size of the freshman class between 1997 and 2003.

I witnessed the influx of the basketball money firsthand last summer when I took my wife and kids back to Spokane. Gonzaga's campus was beautiful when I left back in 1995, but it's ridiculous now. New academic buildings litter the school and the athletic facilities are even more impressive.

The Gonzaga basketball team now plays in the $30 million, 6,000-seat McCarthey Athletic Center, which was finished in 2004. And, closer to my heart, the Bulldog baseball team now plays at the $8 million Washington Trust Field and Patterson Baseball Complex. The stadium seats 2,300 in box seats, far different from when I played in front of a few hundred fans.

Stuff like this can all be traced back to the No. 1-ranked Gonzaga basketball team.

“It’s awesome and very cool to be recognized like that,” senior wing Mike Hart said. “I’ll look back on that once my career is over and think that’s pretty cool we were No. 1 in the nation. But we have so much more in front of us that we want to do and that (ranking) has no bearing on our next game.”

“It’s nothing but a number," head coach Mark Few said. "It’s a great number to have beside your name, but it’s nothing but a number. We still have to play like we can and take this as far as we can.”

Hopefully, all the way to a national championship. Now, that's really the only thing the Gonzaga basketball program hasn't accomplished.

 

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