Gonzaga's streak of 17 trips to NCAA Tournament at risk
SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) Gonzaga's streak of 17 consecutive NCAA Tournaments is the longest for any mid-major program in history. But that streak is in jeopardy this season, and the Zags likely have to win the West Coast Conference tournament to qualify.
Their record of 23-7 isn't bad, but the chances of an at-large bid are hampered by an RPI of 64 and a low strength of schedule. They lack statement wins, and three losses in the lightly regarded WCC don't help matters.
Once ranked as high as No. 9, the Zags fell out of the poll after a series of rare home losses, including to No. 18 Arizona and UCLA in December.
Gonzaga's next game is Saturday night against Portland in the quarterfinals of the WCC tournament in Las Vegas.
''We just have to win out in this tournament to get a bid into the NCAA Tournament,'' guard Silas Melson said.
While the team tries not to focus on the streak, which began when some of them were still in diapers, it can be hard to ignore.
''To be honest, it would suck for us to go 17 years in a row and then not make it,'' Melson said.
Gonzaga is tied with Kentucky and Wisconsin for the fifth-longest NCAA Tournament streak of all time at 17, trailing North Carolina (27), Kansas (26), Duke (20) and Indiana and Michigan State (18 each). No other mid-major program is even close.
The streak has been in peril before, in the 2003, 2007 and 2011 seasons. Each time the Zags rallied to win the WCC tournament or got an at-large bid.
The streak began in 1999, when Gonzaga came out of nowhere to make the Elite Eight under coach Dan Monson. Monson left after that for Minnesota, and assistant Mark Few was elevated to head coach.
Few has never missed the tournament in his 16 seasons at the helm, including last year's run to the Elite Eight.
Few said the streak doesn't add any extra pressure beyond what is normal for March Madness.
''The pressure is on everybody this time of year,'' Few said. ''We've just got to win the next game, especially in an elimination tournament like this.''
It has been an unusual season for Gonzaga. Their first game, against Pittsburgh at a U.S. military base in Okinawa, was called off at halftime because of a slippery floor that was a hazard to the players. They lost by a point to No. 20 Texas A&M, but beat Connecticut, Washington and Tennessee in non-conference play.
Center Przemek Karnowski was lost to a back injury early in the year, but forwards Kyle Wiltjer (20.8 points per game) and Domantas Sabonis (17 points, 11 rebounds per game) stepped up to play well. The guard play - by Melson, Eric McClellan, Josh Perkins and Kyle Dranginis - was inconsistent early, but has improved.
Still, they lost twice to Saint Mary's and once to BYU in conference play.
''There's teams that feel they've got a pretty good chance against us,'' Few said.
This was also the first time since 1990-91 that Gonzaga suffered more than two home losses in a season.
But Gonzaga rallied to win nine of its last 11 games to clinch a share of the WCC regular-season title, its 15th in the past 16 years
''Our goal wasn't to play our best basketball in November,'' McClellan said. ''Our goal was to play our best basketball now.''
McClellan insisted the NCAA streak does not loom large among his teammates.
''It's in the back of our minds, but that's not our focus,'' McClellan said.
The goal is to be prepared and confident about winning, he said.
''As long as we approach it efficiently, as we should each day in practice, all that stuff should take care of itself,'' McClellan said. ''If we are dialed in, we are a tough team to beat.''