Gonzaga's perception problem

As last week’s weekly debate ensued -- “Who’s No. 1?” -- a multitude of squads were mentioned. Duke, Indiana, Michigan and Miami were all possibilities. And the conversation continues this week with Michigan State’s convincing 75-52 win over rival Michigan Tuesday night and the return of James Southerland at Syracuse adding both programs to the ongoing discussion.

But Gonzaga, even though the program received two first-place votes in the Associated Press poll, has rarely been touted as a true candidate for No. 1 status.

The Bulldogs may climb, especially with what would be an impressive win at Saint Mary’s Thursday night, but there’s a greater chance that someone in the Big Ten, Big East or ACC will leapfrog them even if the top 5 stumbles again in the coming weeks.

On paper, it doesn’t make much sense.

If you were to put center Kelly Olynyk in a UCLA or North Carolina or Duke or Michigan uniform, he’d warrant more buzz in the Wooden Award dialogue. Olynyk is ranked first in Ken Pomeroy’s offensive ratings (128.8, No. 1 among players who’ve used at least 28 percent of their respective teams’ possessions).

Gonzaga is seventh in the current BPI. The Zags own a plus-17.6 scoring margin against West Coast Conference schools. They’re shooting 49.4 percent from the field and committing just 10.7 turnovers per game in conference play, too.

And, they’re one of the deepest squads in the country.

From Jim Meehan of the Spokesman-Review:

It’s been a month since Gonzaga held off visiting Saint Mary’s 83-78 and here’s how things can change in that period of time:

Two Bulldogs who didn’t see the court in the first game figure to play a larger role when the WCC men’s basketball rivals collide Thursday in Moraga, Calif. Drew Barham and Kyle Dranginis have seen a steady bump in their playing time the last few weeks at the “3” position.

“I think they’ll both definitely play,” coach Mark Few said. “Saint Mary’s likes to play off David (Stockton), Mike (Hart) and Guy (Landry Edi). We’ll see if they choose to play off those guys.”

The Bulldogs have used a variety of options at the “3.” Edi started 13 games, but his playing time has dwindled since the Oklahoma State game. Hart has made 10 starts and been a solid rebounder and defender. He’s committed just four turnovers in 380 minutes.

Barham and Dranginis both have started one game. They’ve provided an offensive boost of late.

“I’ve been in here working, getting shots up and staying prepared so when people go zone or they help off the “3” or double our bigs, I’ll be able to come in and give the team a boost,” said Barham, who has hit 9 of 14 3-pointers in Gonzaga’s last five games.

Few went with Barham as the starter for Pepperdine because the Waves tend to play zone and sag off the “3.” Few started Hart against Loyola Marymount because he anticipated a physical contest that was “going to be about rebounding and getting in the gaps and playing defense.”

Dranginis has played double-figure minutes in four of the last five games. He’s averaging 5.6 points during that stretch.

“We find out (who is starting) usually the day of the game or the day before,” said Hart, who had six rebounds against LMU. “It doesn’t matter to any of us. We’re all happy contributing any way we can.”

How many teams can match that versatility?

Yet, the Zags have a perception problem.

Even though they have wins over Kansas State, Baylor, Oklahoma State and a bizarre loss at Butler, they’re not engaged in the week-to-week in-conference wars that most of the top-10 endures.

Saint Mary’s is the only other WCC squad in the BPI’s top 50. Five schools are ranked 140th or lower.

No matter how well they play, the Zags just don’t have many opportunities to prove to the college basketball world that they’re worthy of a No. 1 slot.

I can see the Zags emerging as a true No. 1 contender in the eyes of the public/voters without a lot of chaos at the top. But last week was one of the most tumultuous weeks of the year, and the Zags ended up with a No. 5 ranking in the Associated Press rankings.

And I can’t say I disagree with that.

Perhaps they’re better. Maybe we’ll realize that we’ve made a mistake by failing to grant the Zags more street credit as one of the country’s top two or three squads come March.

Right now, however, it’s difficult to reward a program that is rumbling through a league with so little competition.

It’s a tough situation for the Zags.

They’re doing what they’re supposed to do. They’re doing it well. They’re just not doing it against teams that can put up much of a fight.