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Gonzaga rides WCC run to top-ranking

The Gonzaga student section first proclaimed it loudly Saturday night, immediately after the Bulldogs wrapped up a regular season conference title, chanting "We're No. 1!"

Now, it's official - in both the AP poll and the latest edition of the UPS Team Performance Index.

Not long ago, March was a month Gonzaga used to help define the term "Cinderella" in tournament play. It certainly won't be mistaken for that anymore. On Monday, it claimed its first-ever No. 1 ranking in the poll and the index.

Trailing Indiana by a small margin for the top spot last week, Gonzaga seized control after stringing together two more victories while the Hoosiers were upset at Minnesota.

In conjunction with STATS LLC, UPS has created a proprietary algorithm that gauges six major statistics covering the spectrum of a team's on-court performance: effective field-goal percentage, effective field-goal percentage against, rebounding percentage, ball-handling efficiency, miscues and winning percentage.

From there, the data is normalized and an overall index is created for all 345 NCAA Division I teams. The scores are not meant to reflect a traditional power poll, per se, but measure a broad range of inside-the-lines excellence and overall balance.

The Bulldogs (29-2) have won 12 in a row, their last loss a 64-63 setback at then-No. 13 Butler on Jan. 19. They wrapped up the program's fourth perfect run through the WCC with an 81-52 win over Portland on Saturday and averaged 76.9 points on 49.5 percent shooting over the 12-game streak.

But an ever-evolving defense is what has precipitated the Zags' rise to the top spot. Gonzaga's defensive score is still its weakest of the six categories that make up the index, but an improvement from a .450 effective field-goal percentage against to .446 was enough to vault it from 50th to 40th this week.

The Bulldogs rank 19th or better in the five remaining categories, highlighted by a .564 effective field-goal percentage that ranks fifth and a .935 winning percentage for the country's best record. Trailing Indiana by 0.31 last week, Gonzaga turned the deficit into a margin of plus-2.04 this week.

"It's never happened here before," coach Mark Few said of a potential No. 1 ranking after Saturday's win. "It would be an honor. If they think that highly of us, we'll take it."

The index, of course, is strictly quantitative, so while Few is now thankful to the AP voters, his team's metrics are solely responsible for its lofty status in the index.

Gonzaga won't play again until Saturday in a WCC tournament semifinal game against either Loyola Marymount, Portland, San Francisco or Santa Clara. The Bulldogs are in line for their 15th straight NCAA bid, including 1999, when they advanced to a regional final. Their sights are now clearly set higher than winning just one game, however, which they've done each of the last three seasons.

"We want to go to the NCAA tournament and try to win the thing," Few said.

One of the teams which may stand in their way when all is said and done is Duke. The impressive return of Ryan Kelly helped the Blue Devils (25-4) bounce back from a Thursday loss at Virginia with a 79-76 win over Miami on Saturday as Kelly scored a career-high 36 points.

"The thing (the win) does for us is it gives us a chance over the next few weeks to transition to the NCAA tournament," coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "We're just running a little bit different race than anybody else right now. And it doesn't mean everything's OK, but it's a lot better."

But while the third-ranked Blue Devils are 16-0 this season with Kelly and received five first-place votes in this week's AP poll, they're just 14th in the index. Duke ranks among the top teams in terms of ball-handling and miscues, but the index shows that rebounding could be the thing that spoils the team's hope of a lengthy postseason run.

Its rebounding component of 95.16 puts them in the company of sub-.500 teams. Duke's minus-1.2 rebounding margin is 10th in the ACC and the Blue Devils have been outrebounded by 9.5 rebounds per game in four losses.

Wichita State experienced one of the biggest drops of the week, descending from 18th to 38th after losses to Evansville and Creighton. The Shockers' team efficiency rating fell nearly three whole points after they shot 38.2 percent against Evansville and allowed Creighton to knock down 70.2 percent of their field goals.

While Michigan State's one-point loss at Michigan didn't seem to diminish the Spartans much in the eyes of voters - they fell from No. 9 to 10 - the index wasn't nearly as kind. The Spartans' third straight loss saw them tumble from 23rd to 36th.

Grambling State was ranked last for the seventh straight week as the Tiger's remain the country's lone winless team at 0-27.

Copyright 2018 by STATS LLC and Associated Press.
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