Column: Gonzaga, Northwestern provide new hoops story lines

Unbeaten Gonzaga is giving college basketball fans something to talk about besides the usual story lines.

And while we're at it, let's not forget Northwestern positioning itself to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time.

Both are a welcome respite from Coach K's back, Kentucky's latest group of stellar freshmen and UConn romping toward another women's championship.

In a sport where the same schools dominate year after year, a little variety is very, very welcome.

''We had this belief in the preseason,'' said Nigel Williams-Goss, one of three transfers from power-conference schools who stars for Gonzaga. ''If we took the defensive end seriously, we knew the sky was the limit for us.''

While the Zags are hardly some Johnny-come-lately - after all, this is their 10th straight 25-win season and they were also ranked No. 1 in 2013 for the final three weeks of the regular season - history is not on their side.

Teams like Gonzaga just don't win national titles.

In 19 NCAA Tournament appearances, the Zags have gotten as far as the regional final only twice. They've never reached the Final Four.

Over the last half-century, a mere 12 schools have hoarded 40 men's national championships.

Chances are, one of them will be cutting down the nets again this season.

Eight members of college basketball royalty - defending national champion Villanova, Kansas, UCLA, Louisville, North Carolina, Duke, Kentucky and Florida - are ranked in the top 15 of The Associated Press poll.

But there's Gonzaga, ahead of them all at the moment.

The Zags improved to 27-0 with a 96-61 rout of San Francisco on Thursday night. A perfect regular season seems a formality, since they've already beaten the final three opponents on the schedule - conference foes Pacific, San Francisco and BYU - by an average of 22 points.

If Gonzaga can complete this run, it would be in some pretty elite company. Only 13 teams have gotten to 30-0, the most recent being Kentucky two seasons ago. Of those, six went on to capture the national title and five more reached the Final Four.

Then again, the Zags figure to draw plenty of comparisons to Wichita State, another school from a less-prominent conference that won its first 35 game in 2013-14. Alas, the Shockers drew a terrible matchup in the Round of 32, facing a Kentucky team that had underperformed much of the year but got on quite a roll in the tournament.

Big Blue held off Wichita State 78-76 and went on to reach the national championship game before losing to UConn.

Gonzaga faced some tough competition back in November and December, beating two teams - Arizona and Florida - that are currently in the Top 25, as well as major-conference opponents Iowa State, Washington and Tennessee.

Since then, the Zags haven't been challenged at all in the West Coast Conference, which was sort of the way it was for Wichita State three years ago in the Missouri Valley. The Shockers went 18-0 in league play, winning by an average of 15.6 points a game, and got only one real scare, holding off Missouri State in overtime.

Gonzaga has been every more dominating in its conference, winning 15 games by an average of 26.7 points. Not one of its WCC games has been decided by single digits, which is certainly impressive to watch but may not be preparing the Zags for the rigors they'll face in the NCAAs.

That's an issue for another day.

Let's enjoy this ride as long as we can, along with a little magic that's happening in Chicago's northern suburbs.

Northwestern, which has never reached the NCAA Tournament, took a gigantic step toward locking up its spot last weekend with a stunning 66-59 victory at then-No. 7 Wisconsin.

Even though the Wildcats fell at home on Wednesday, losing 74-64 to No. 23 Maryland, they're still just one victory away from a 20-win season and, barring a complete collapse, seem likely to finally get their first invitation to the Big Dance.

That said, Northwestern still has a bit of that deer-in-headlights look - not surprising given their largely forgettable history. Coming off one of their biggest wins, the Wildcats fell behind by 20 against Maryland and never really made a game of it.

''You can't be sluggish from the last win,'' Vic Law said. ''You can't be thinking about `Oh, we beat Wisconsin' because when you come in and play a team like this that's just as good as Wisconsin, they can put you in a hole like they put us in.''

As with Gonzaga, it will be interesting to see how Northwestern fares in the tournament.

If nothing else, we'll have something new to talk about.

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Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .

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For more AP college basketball coverage: http://collegebasketball.ap.org

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