LAS VEGAS – Their reign as No. 1 is little more than a week old, yet it seems a comfortable fit for the little school that can. Gonzaga plays like a team without a big target on its uniform, something that should serve the Zags well as they head into the NCAA tournament in search of something a bit more tangible than their ranking as the best team in the country.
Whether they really are the best in the land may be debatable, though the way Gonzaga finished off its last bit of pre-tournament work Monday night should win some converts. Behind the ever-efficient Kelly Olynyk and some tremendous defense, the Bulldogs — the school's official nickname — easily took care of business in beating rival Saint Mary's 65-51 to win the West Coast Conference title.
For the Zags it was simple. One game to retain the No. 1 ranking. One game to get a No. 1 seed.
But now is when it really starts to get interesting. And now is when it really counts.
The next time Gonzaga takes the court all of college basketball will be watching. How the Zags respond will determine how long this magical ride lasts.
"This team is very grounded," coach Mark Few said. "It's a team that enjoys playing together. It's not one that spends a lot of time on the noise outside the program."
That showed Monday in this gambling city, where the Zags and Saint Mary's seem to meet every year for their conference's title. If Gonzaga is a small school from Washington state, Saint Mary's is an even smaller from California. Get them together, though, and both usually play big.
Few drew up a plan to stop Matthew Dellavedova, the leading scorer for the Gaels, often employing the 7-foot Olynyk on the double team to slow him down. It worked better than imagined, with Dellavedova held to just one basket in eight shots, and Saint Mary's going scoreless for long periods.
The game was pretty much over early in the second half, but Gonzaga kept the defensive pressure on until the final buzzer sounded and all that was left to do was get the trophy and cut down the nets. Olynyk — who was so confused about his game that he didn't even play last year — finished with 21 points and 12 rebounds, but it was his teammate, Elias Harris from Germany, who was the tournament MVP.
If the celebration afterward was a bit muted — some confetti from the rafters and a few hugs — it's because the real work lies ahead. The knock on Gonzaga, which will be going to the tournament for the 15th year on a row, is that the Zags have had trouble advancing. But Few took pains to point out that his team has had the misfortune to run into some hot teams most years.
That may happen again, even with a No. 1 seed that should help get the Zags out of the opening round. Winning 31 games is an accomplishment, but the NCAA tournament is a treacherous place.
"You have to be short-minded in a sense that it's not the end of the year for us," Olynyk said. "We still want to come out and play our game in the tournament."
In a year that no team seemed to be No. 1 for very long, that game could carry the Zags a long way. Yes, Gonzaga played its toughest opponents early and then had the fortune to finish the season in a conference they dominated. But if you haven't seen this team play, they're the real thing.
They're deep, they defend hard, and they're big inside. The guards aren't bad either, and even John Stockton's son, David, had a few moments to shine as a reserve in the championship final.
Olynyk is a guard who grew into a center, while Harris is a force offensively inside and the two seem to know where the other is at all times on the court. Kevin Pangos runs everything from his guard position and any number of guys seem to come off the bench and add something extra.
Most importantly, though, they seem to enjoy playing together. And they don't appear to be worried about any expectations other than their own.
"We've been playing great basketball all year," Harris said. "We believe in ourselves, we believe in our coaches, we believe in our teammates. So we just try to go out there and play our game. We don't think about that stuff because whatever you're ranked — 1st, 2nd or last — you just go and play your game and it'll all take care of itself."
It did on this night, when the spotlight of being No. 1 shined brightly on Gonzaga. The Zags could have stumbled against a 27-5 team that hadn't lost to anyone but Gonzaga since December, but they were coldly efficient in wrapping up their last bit of unfinished business before the tournament.
The Zags will formally get their No. 1 seeding Sunday and find out where they begin their quest for a national championship that suddenly doesn't seem so farfetched. They're good enough to be in Atlanta, good enough to win it all.
The wise guys in Vegas sure aren't betting against them.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg