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Analysis: Gonzaga’s return to No. 1 means more exposure, pressure as postseason nears

UPDATED: Tue., Feb. 26, 2019, 10:16 a.m.

The Spokesman-Review’s Theo Lawson is one of 65 national media members voting in the Associated Press Top 25 basketball poll this season. Every week throughout the 2018-19 campaign, he’ll break down how he voted, offering three thoughts on the latest edition of the poll, an update on the Pac-12’s ranked teams and a look at local Top 25 representative Gonzaga.

Three thoughts

1. Nearly 70 percent of voters were in unison when it came to Gonzaga’s new ranking. Forty-five of the 65 either kept the Bulldogs at No. 1 in this week’s AP poll or moved them up to the top line of their ballot after Duke’s troubling night in Chapel Hill. And now the Zags have a chance to really hold onto college basketball’s most coveted position. GU has won each of its 14 West Coast Conference games by double digits, so barring an upset loss in the final two regular-season games at Pacific and Saint Mary’s, or a collapse in the WCC Tournament – where the Zags haven’t lost since 2012 – Mark Few’s team should realistically hold onto No. 1 until Selection Sunday. But, with great power comes great responsibility, so what would an extended stay on top of the rankings mean for GU?

2. Sitting on top of the AP poll won’t bring more national awareness to GU than advancing to a national championship or qualifying for the Sweet Sixteen four years in a row, but there’s always another level of media coverage and attention reserved for the country’s top team – something Duke and standout freshman Zion Williamson have known all too well this season. Which is to say, even if it’s just for a week, the No. 1 ranking has never damaged a brand. While this doesn’t change the recruiting strategy for Few and his staff – it’s unlikely the Zags suddenly go on a binge for five-star prospects – there’s always a chance the added exposure opens up a few more doors.

3. Few’s too good a coach to let players get caught up in the moment, but that doesn’t change the fact that as long as the Bulldogs wear the No. 1 mantle, they’ll be playing with a target that didn’t exist before Monday’s poll came out. Twice already this season, the Zags have been part of an upset involving the No. 1 team. They know the thrill of beating No. 1 – GU’s 89-87 win over Duke lifted the Zags to the top spot back in November – and they know what it’s like to let the same spot slip out of their hands. Gonzaga spent two weeks on top before falling to No. 3 after a stinging loss to Tennessee in Phoenix. The Zags will be heavily favored in every game they play – likely until at least the third round of the NCAA Tournament – but the longer they spend with the nation’s No. 1 ranking, the more pressure there’ll be to retain it.

Perusing the Pac-12

The Pac-12 went eight long weeks without a team in the Top 25, since Arizona State last appeared in the poll at No. 17 on Christmas Eve. UW’s return to the poll – the Huskies made the preseason cut – may not give the conference much legitimacy, but few can question the legitimacy of Mike Hopkins’ team at this point. The Huskies may be playing in the worst Power Five conference – and worst by quite a bit – but winning 15 of 16 games is notable, regardless of the league you’re playing in. UW’s defense has been suffocating during that stretch, giving up 63.6 points per game to Pac-12 opponents. Just three of those have reached the 70-point threshold against the Huskies, while six of them have been held under 60 points.

Home cooking

Now on the verge of their fifth undefeated WCC season under Few, the Zags close out against the Tigers and the Gaels – teams they beat by 31 and 48 points, respectively, the first time around. Those games also represented two of GU’s best defensive outings this season. The lowest point total allowed by the Zags this season came in a 67-36 rout of Pacific, when GU forced the Tigers to shoot 26 percent from the field and commit 22 turnovers. Saint Mary’s fared slightly better, but the Gaels were also held to their lowest point total of the season in a 94-46 Zags romp.

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