- Associated Press - Friday, January 31, 2014

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) - A year ago at this time, Gonzaga was headed toward a No. 1 ranking in the AP Top 25.

This year, with a nearly identical record, the Zags are not even on the poll.

Gonzaga is 19-3 overall. Last year after 22 games, a Zags team lead by Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris was 20-2.

Coach Mark Few doesn’t concern himself too much with the polls. He’s more impressed that his team - which has battled injuries, illness and a quirky schedule - is leading the West Coast Conference with a 9-1 record.

“We had all kinds of excuses and we didn’t let that affect us,” Few said after the Bulldogs beat BYU last weekend.

The Bulldogs have been ranked as high as No. 11 this season. But losses to Dayton, Kansas State, and especially conference rival Portland knocked them out of the Top 25.

Part of the reason this team isn’t getting love from the voters is a softer-than-usual nonconference record. Last year’s squad played Clemson, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Illinois, Baylor and Butler in the nonconference campaign.

Perhaps anticipating a rebuilding year, the Zags this season have a more modest resume, led by wins over West Virginia, Arkansas and New Mexico State. They do have a Feb. 8 date at No. 22 Memphis left.

The Zags are back in action Saturday at San Francisco.

Last year’s team featured front court players Olynyk and Harris, who both moved on to the NBA. This year’s team is dominated by guards Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr. and David Stockton.

Pangos, who leads the team in scoring at 16 points per game, has battled turf toe in recent weeks. Bell, third in scoring at 12 points per game, missed six games with a broken hand. Stockton (7 points, 4 assists per game), son of Gonzaga and NBA legend John Stockton, has been relatively healthy.

The three guards combined for 52 points and 17 assists in Gonzaga’s recent win over BYU. Pangos led with 24 points.

“He’s just doing what he’s been doing this whole year,” Bell said of Pangos. “dishing it out, making plays and making shots. He’s just an all-around player.”

The Zags do have an inside presence, featuring junior forward Sam Dower Jr. and 7-foot-1 center Przemek Karnowski. Dower, who averages 14 points and nearly 7 rebounds, seems to have bounced back from a back injury that slowed him earlier this season. Karnowski averages 10 points and 7.5 rebounds.

“We always play inside out,” Bell said. “When Sam and Przemek are playing like they have been playing, it makes it easy for me and Kevin and Stocks to get shots off.”

The Zags begin each season with a goal of winning the WCC regular-season title, and have been remarkable in achieving that. They have won or shared 14 of the past 16 WCC titles, losing to Pepperdine in 2000 and Saint Mary’s in 2012. They have also gone to 15 consecutive NCAA tournaments, one of the nation’s longer runs.

Gonzaga has positioned itself to win the regular-season title again, losing only 82-73 at Portland earlier this month. The rematch in Spokane is Feb. 5.

The Zags stand first in the standings, ahead of Saint Mary’s.

“It’s great because everyone in the league is beating each other up,” Bell said. “We’re glad to be No. 1, but we’ve just got to keep going from here.”

But there are challenges. Five of their final eight conference games are on the road. That’s because the Zags played their first four conference games at home during the winter break, when students were mostly gone. They won all four.

“We are probably going to have to be just as tough, or tougher, as we head out now with the majority of them on the road,” Few said.

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