OK, OK, it’s kind of a big deal. But let’s not get carried away.
Being the No. 1 team in college basketball is akin to winning the swimsuit competition of a beauty pageant. You look nice. The judges are impressed. But in the end it might be nothing more than a consolation prize — and it might be quickly forgotten.
Gonzaga is poised to ascend to the No. 1 spot in the college basketball rankings when the polls are released Monday, a status that 10 years ago seemed about as likely as a state senator from Illinois becoming president.
Good for the Zags. Considering that 15 years ago nobody outside of the Northwest had ever heard of Gonzaga, or that 99 percent of the populace could not have pointed to Spokane on a map, the Zags’ rise has been remarkable and significant.
There have been 14 straight NCAA tournaments, one Elite Eight appearance, five Sweet Sixteens, and 17 tournament victories. Nearly every basketball program in the country should be envious of such a résumé.
“It’s much more difficult than the average fan would expect, to get to that level and then stay at that level,” Dan Dickau said.
Dickau, a Prairie High School graduate who went on to be a first-team All-American for Zags, is back in Spokane these days, working as a color analyst on TV broadcasts of Gonzaga games.
He has seen the Zags up close, and he is convinced they are deserving of the No. 1 ranking. Still, he offers a word of caution.
“As hard as it is for me to say, because I thought we were pretty good my senior year and they have had some pretty good teams, this is the best Gonzaga team,” Dickau said. “That being said, you are judged based on what you do in the NCAA Tournament.”
Therein lies one of the problems with the, “OMG, Gonzaga is No. 1!” storyline.
Remember when Oregon State was ranked No. 1 during the 1981 season? If you lived in these parts at the time, of course you remember. But the rest of the country remembers the Sports Illustrated cover of Rolando Blackman and Kansas State beating the Beavers in OSU’s first NCAA Tournament game.
Basketball polls are about as accurate as a Rasmussen presidential poll — and about as meaningful. They are the “most popular” of senior class awards — an indication that everybody likes you, but not a predictor of future success.
Which brings us to the other problem with all the regional excitement about Gonzaga being No. 1. Sure, the Zags have never been there before, but isn’t this a natural part of the progression for a program that has been among the nation’s elite for more than a decade?
Part of the story is that it’s amazing for a school of 4,900 undergraduates in an out-of-the-way conference to be the No. 1 team in the nation. And it is, indeed, amazing. But Gonzaga long ago outgrew the “Little Engine That Could” persona.
Mark Few has one of the highest winning percentages in the history of college basketball; the Zags have more than their share of first-round draft picks over the past decade; they have six straight 25-win seasons. This isn’t the program that came out of nowhere to reach the Elite Eight in 1999; it’s one of the best in the country.
Yes, there is some reason to revel in the No. 1 ranking. As Dickau said: “It’s a huge validation for the program that people around the country are having to say they deserve to be No. 1.”
That’s true, but a trip to the Final Four would make a more lasting imprint on the college basketball world. For now, however, Gonzaga will settle for being No. 1 in the country.
And, you know, that’s better than not being No. 1.