SPOKANE, WASH. (AP) - Second-ranked Gonzaga’s game at BYU on Thursday suddenly has national significance.
With No. 1 Indiana losing to Minnesota on Tuesday, the Zags might reach the top of the AP basketball poll Monday if they can beat BYU then defeat Portland on Saturday.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling to be part of such a team that has accomplished so much up to this point,” forward Elias Harris said earlier this week. “It makes me proud.”
The feat would be unprecedented for the mid-major program from the small Jesuit college in Spokane. While Gonzaga has been running with the elite teams in the nation for more than a decade, few in Spokane dreamed that coach Mark Few’s gang could ever be No. 1.
“It’s special … that people see you in that light at the top of the nation,” guard Mike Hart said.
Gonzaga (27-2, 14-0 WCC) beat BYU 83-63 last month in Spokane. But the Bulldogs lost last year in Provo, where more than 20,000 fans make for a tough environment
“This one’s going to be a huge challenge,” Hart said. “The crowd and their atmosphere down there is really unbelievable. … They are going to be rowdy and into it.”
Gonzaga has played before plenty of big crowds this season, including games at Oklahoma State, Washington State and Butler.
“We function very well in that type of environment,” Few said.
A victory at BYU would give Gonzaga the WCC regular season title outright. The Cougars (20-9, 9-5) need a signature win to make a case for an invitation to the NCAA tournament.
If the Zags beat BYU, their final regular-season game is at home Saturday against Portland (11-19, 4-10), an opponent they beat by 22 points on the road earlier this season.
This Gonzaga team was pegged as special from the preseason, largely because of Harris and returning guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. The surprise has been the emergence of junior center Kelly Olynyk, who redshirted last season after two undistinguished years on the team.
The 7-foot Olynyk is averaging more than 17 points and 6 rebounds per game, shooting 66 percent from the field and thrilling crowds with acrobatic dunks.
The team has a strong international flavor. Harris is from Germany, while Pangos and Olynyk are Canadians.