LAS VEGAS — The stakes are raised and the spotlight more glaring tonight when Gonzaga’s men play their first game as a No. 1-ranked team in the semifinals of the West Coast Conference tournament.
Opposite the Zags is No. 9 seed Loyola Marymount, which advanced in the quarterfinals by beating Santa Clara. Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s, the teams figured to meet in the final Monday night, get double byes to the semifinals.
It will have been a week since Gonzaga last played, when it completed an unbeaten WCC regular season with a victory over Portland. Monday, both polls had the Zags at No. 1 — a day of celebration on campus — but there are indications head coach Mark Few got their attention with a back-to-earth approach when the team met Tuesday.
Indeed, that was what assistant coach Tommy Lloyd promised Monday, hours after the No. 1 ranking was revealed.
“These guys will get a cold dose of reality (Tuesday) afternoon at 2:30,” Lloyd said.
No doubt Gonzaga highlights will now be obligatory on ESPN’s SportsCenter, and elsewhere, the media focus will be more intense.
Meanwhile, the biggest plum at stake for Gonzaga here is a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. There has been debate about whether the Zags’ league schedule warrants such respect, but lately, other potential No. 1s like Georgetown and Miami have fallen, attrition that should help Gonzaga.
A loss in the WCC would almost certainly drop the Zags to a No. 2 or 3 seed.
As for whether being No. 1-ranked will create a burden, senior forward Mike Hart said, “I don’t think it should. It’s cool to be recognized. To be seen in that kind of a light is a special thing. I don’t think it adds any pressure.
“It should just be a cool thing, it shouldn’t be bringing us down. It should be something we can hold and play our best for.”
Added guard Gary Bell Jr.: “If we’re No. 1 for a week and then lose in the tournament, nobody’s going to remember that.”
A Saturday-night victory would give the twice-beaten Zags their first 30-win season in history.
On the women’s side, regular-season winner Gonzaga (25-5) is likewise seeded No. 1, with BYU the highest-seeded team facing the Zags on that side of the bracket in Saturday’s noon semis. Gonzaga is widely figured to be on the safe side of the NCAA bracket even if it doesn’t win the tournament.