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John Blanchette: Unprecedented fall from the perch of college hoops polls won’t do much to derail Gonzaga’s confidence, focus

UPDATED: Sat., Jan. 25, 2020

Having dispatched the Pacific Tigers in a fashion that evolved from street fight to stupefying on Saturday night, the Gonzaga Bulldogs figure to wake up Monday morning ranked, what?

Third? Lower? Also receiving votes?

You can expect the rationale for any pollsters dropping the Zags again to be fundamental:

Hey, they won only one game this week.

It is the time of the college basketball season – a month and change before the madness – when diversions are welcome and any drama manufactured. So the minor indignity in Gonzaga slipping from No. 1 to 2 last week without actually, you know, losing was as reviving as a rain shower.

It also elicited less than a shrug from those dissed by the national electorate.

“Good for them,” Bulldogs guard Joel Ayayi said. “We’re not No. 1. Who cares?”

Now, a 92-59 rout might suggest there was a little more juice in the gym for the Tigers, who despite a few hiccups of late remain the West Coast Conference’s most improved team – and maybe it came from the poll nonsense. But that’s probably a stretch. After all, the Zags have been beating WCC rivals by better than 26 points a game anyway, and if there was a resonating motivational note it was likely struck by sophomore forward Filip Petrusev, whose sprained ankle of a week ago made him a game-time decision.

Game he was and more, with a strong post-up for Gonzaga’s first basket and 15 points on the night. Pretty good tonic for a team that lost Anton Watson last week – his shoulder was operated on Wednesday – and has been wrapped in gauze going back to last summer.

Still, their expressions when, uh, polled about the rankings hinted that the great flip-flop of last Monday was something they found amusing, at least.

“It did seem,” forward Corey Kispert said, “odd.”

This is certainly no blast at Baylor, which leapfrogged the Bulldogs into the top spot. Winning 16 in a row gives the Bears as much of a claim to No. 1 as Gonzaga, with the possible demurral that the Zags got there first.

It’s just that there was no real precedent for it.

In the past 25 years of Associated Press polling, there’s never been a No. 1 knocked from its perch without losing a game after the first week of the season. Last year, Duke jumped preseason No. 1 Kansas – all the way from No. 4 – with a strong opener, and in 2005 Wake Forest did the same thing to the Jayhawks by opening the season with two routs while Kansas wheezed past Vermont. But they’d been in a near dead-heat in the preseason poll.

Otherwise, it might cost you a few votes, but never your seat at the head of the table unless you lose.

And sometimes even a loss doesn’t do that much damage. In 2016, Oklahoma survived a loss to stay No. 1. Two years before, Syracuse lost twice in a week and dipped only to No. 4.

There are also acts of the basketball gods like Illinois beating No. 1 Wake Forest in 2005 and going from fifth to first – and past other unbeatens Kansas, Syracuse and Georgia Tech.

And this was not that. Baylor’s two victims last week – Iowa State and Oklahoma – were about 40 aggregate spots in the NET computer ratings below the two teams GU beat.

“It’s definitely different than if we’d lost to somebody,” Ayayi allowed. “But really, it’s just for the media or for Twitter.”

Not even a motivator?

Not at all.

It is a yearly circumstance at Gonzaga that, at this time of the season, the Bulldogs must contend with certain, well, blahs. They are simply handling their WCC competition, and the fun showdowns with old pal Saint Mary’s are off in the distance. So the Zags have become adept at inventing their own inspiration.

“You just have to come out – especially in practice – and take things seriously every single day,” Kispert said. “Coach (Mark Few) always tells us that we’re playing for a lot more than a lot of these teams in the league. They don’t have quite the postseason aspirations we do, and in order to compete with the best teams in the country we have to bring it every night.

“It would be easy to coast by and win by 10 or 15, but we wouldn’t be doing ourselves a favor later in the season.”

Which was why you saw the Zags make a nice adjustment at halftime against Pacific warrior Jahlil Tripp and reel off an 18-4 burst to blow things open.

And now all the voters will see is another blowout in a league they don’t respect much anyway. But then, if the topic is restrained respect, San Diego State is still undefeated without so much as a single first-place vote.

“It’s cool to be No. 1,” senior Killian Tillie said. “But I’ll take No. 2. We’re OK.”

Surely we can come to a consensus on that, at least.

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