According to the experts, this year’s Gonzaga men’s basketball team was supposed to be good — but by no means the best of the best. Starting at No. 8 after losing four starters from the 2018-2019 team, even head coach Mark Few had his doubts about the chances of elite success in 2019-20 before the season began.
"The way we looked, and you can ask my wife this, in September and October, I mean, I was literally ready to go on a fishing trip and stay in the wilderness for four months and be found in April," he told Matt Norlander of CBS Sports in December. "There wasn't one entity in the game we were doing well, including our team wasn't talking. It was a pack of introverts on this team, so it was really hard to live out of that.”
In the ensuing months, something clicked. When the schedule got tough, the Zags notched over three top-25 Pac-12 teams away from home against University of Oregon, University of Washington and University of Arizona, resisting strong comeback efforts from all three late in each game. A week after defeating the Wildcats in Tucson, Arizona, GU walloped University of North Carolina in The Kennel 94-81.
While GU thrived, it was a chaotic start to the season for the rest of the NCAA’s upper echelon. Five No. 1’s lost in the first two months of the season, and with no truly dominant teams at the forefront of the national scene, it was almost inevitable that turnover would continue. When then-No. 1 Kansas fell to Villanova on Dec. 21, the Zags finally got their turn at the top for the fifth time in program history. They’ve held on to it for the better part of a month since then.
Each year GU has ascended to the top spot, it's earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and those teams have only lost one combined game in West Coast Conference play. No one can say for sure how long the ranking will last or how far the Zags will go when March comes around, but here’s a look at their past stints at the apex of the collegiate game.
March 4, 2013 to March 18, 2013
GU’s first flirtation with national dominance came at the end of the 2013 season. Starting the season at No. 21, the Bulldogs kept winning and crept closer and closer all year until losses from power conference teams gave them their chance at the top.
A deep roster with seven fourth-year players, led by Consensus First-Team All-American center Kelly Olynyk, made GU a contender for a top seed for the first time since the Adam Morrison days. However, in the NCAA Tournament, the magic would be cut short when the top-seeded Zags were upset by a Final Four-bound Wichita State team in the Round of 32.
Finish: 32–3 (16–0 WCC), NCAA Tournament, Round of 32
Jan. 30, 2017 to Feb. 26, 2017
Twenty-nine straight wins to open the season brought the 2016-17 Zags as close to perfection as they’d ever been.
Three transfers, Johnathan Williams III, Nigel Williams-Goss and Jordan Mathews, formed the backbone of the nation’s most efficient defense, and Przemek Karnowski and Josh Perkins rounded out a starting five that could attack and pressure from all over.
With that lineup, GU nearly went undefeated in the regular season, winning all but three games by double digits. The nearly month-long period at No. 1 ended when a Senior-Night upset by BYU dropped the Zags to No. 4.
Regardless, this team would go further than any other in GU history, ultimately falling to University of North Carolina in the NCAA Championship Game.
Perhaps more importantly, the 2016-17 Bulldogs dispelled the notion that Few couldn’t make it to the NCAA’s biggest stage. The second-place finish stung for players and fans alike — but the 2016-17 Zags compare favorably to many past NCAA champions in terms of efficiency on both ends of the court.
Finish: 37–2 (17–1 WCC), NCAA Runner-Up
Nov. 26, 2018 to Dec. 9, 2018
GU’s first stint at the top of the polls during the 2018-19 season came after the high of defeating Duke University to win the Maui Jim Maui Invitational.
A physically imposing frontcourt — led by future first-round picks Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura — and hot-shooting backcourt comprised of the redshirt senior Perkins and redshirt sophomore Zach Norvell Jr. dominated the then-No. 1 team in the country for most of the game.
Prior to Maui, pundits were openly wondering whether the Duke team stacked with three future NBA first-round picks was capable of beating an NBA team. After the Blue Devils were handed a 89-87 loss, no one was asking that question anymore.
The ranking wouldn’t last long, though, as GU tumbled down to No. 4 and then No. 8 after losing twice (to No. 7 Tennessee on a neutral court and No. 12 UNC in Chapel Hill) in two weeks.
Feb. 25, 2019 to March 9, 2019
The No. 1 spot would be reclaimed once more in the same season thanks to a 21-game win streak in which Few’s squad ran the table through conference play, despite Killian Tillie's injury-induced absence for much of it.
Hachimura’s heroics in the Duke game solidified him as the Zags’ household name early in the season, but as the season progressed, Clarke’s defensive brilliance in the post and absurd offensive efficiency at the rim brought him into the national discussion as well.
Another No. 1 seed in hand, GU put away Fairleigh Dickinson, Baylor and Florida State in the first three rounds of the NCAA Tournament without much trouble, but the favorites in the West Region weren’t able to get past a Jarrett Culver-led Texas Tech team that made it to the championship game.
Finish: 33–4 (16–0 WCC), NCAA Tournament, Elite Eight
Dec. 23, 2019 to present
Past top-ranked GU teams relied on a bevy of players with collegiate experience. This year, not so much.
Eight departures due to graduation, transfer and the NBA Draft meant the 2019-20 Bulldogs would have to depend on graduate transfer guards Admon Gilder Jr. and Ryan Woolridge and a talented six-man freshman class to fill big roles.
That shortage of proven variables was a major reason GU started the season No. 8. But so far, those new faces haven’t shied away from the task.
Few has described Woolridge as the best defensive guard he’s ever coached, while Gilder has provided a scoring punch from both inside and outside the 3-point line. Freshman posts Drew Timme and Anton Watson have supplied steady minutes off the bench.
The few returners from last year — Tillie, Corey Kispert, Filip Petrusev and Joel Ayayi — are all averaging double digits in scoring, thanks largely to significant leaps in performance from previous years.
No matter the circumstances, it seems the only constant for the Zags is they keep finding ways to win.