Gonzaga is proving it's worth staying up late

Look at the schedule, and try to find Gonzaga's first loss. You might be looking for a while. AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

It's a dive bar.

A real dive bar. Jack & Dan's serves the patrons of Spokane, Washington, with the wholesome sliders and hefty nachos any sports fan would enjoy on game day.

It's an establishment with a nondescript green awning and an old sign atop the building. You know it's there only if you live in Spokane, a jewel of a city off the Spokane River.

The Gonzaga Bulldogs thrive with a similar blue-collar allure. They are a deep, talented and undefeated squad with a shot at a flawless regular season -- and the fanfare of a small-town program beloved by its supporters but obscured by flashier schools that have contributed to the West Coast surge of 2016-17.

As West Coast Conference play begins, however, it's only fair to consider this question about Mark Few's most promising roster: Will Gonzaga lose a game before the NCAA tournament?

On KenPom.com, the Zags are projected to win all but one of their remaining regular-season matchups, and that one is a road game at rival and No. 19 Saint Mary's on Feb. 11. The BPI gives the Bulldogs a 3.1 percent chance (No. 9 overall) to win the rest of their regular-season games.

Before you refute the possibility, watch Gonzaga play.

On Saturday, Gonzaga won a contentious road matchup against Pacific 81-61.

Early in the first half of the game, Missouri transfer Jonathan Williams -- a 6-foot-9 combo forward averaging 9.3 PPG and connecting on 61 percent of his 3-point attempts -- dribbled along the perimeter, passed to a teammate, moved into the post and called for the ball.

Washington transfer Nigel Williams-Goss (13.8 PPG, 4.7 APG), Cal transfer Jordan Mathews (10.6 PPG, 43 percent from the 3-point line) and Josh Perkins (48 percent from the 3-point line) passed the ball around the arch before Przemek Karnowski dropped his 7-foot-1, 300-pound frame into the paint and raised his hand.

As the ball reached his left palm, Pacific doubled the big man. Smart move. But Karnowski, one of the nation's best passers out of the post, found Mathews on the perimeter with an Arvydas Sabonis-like overhead dime. Karnowski found Williams-Goss on a similar play minutes later.

"He's easily one of the smartest players I've ever played with," Perkins told ESPN.com of Karnowski. "He wants everybody to get involved. He makes the right read every time. He's an easy guy to play with."

Added Few about the big man who missed most of last season with a back injury: "He's just something in college basketball that people don't have. You can bring the double, and he enjoys it."

For Gonzaga, freshman Zach Collins, a 7-foot NBA prospect who has made 77 percent of his shots inside the arc, comes off the bench along with 6-foot-10 freshman forward Killian Tillie (9-for-19 from the 3-point line). Silas Melson (8.4 PPG) adds another significant contributor to a legit eight-man rotation.

"When I look at their team, they've got three starters coming off the bench," Pacific coach Damon Stoudamire, the former NBA rookie of the year, told reporters after Saturday's game. "Those guys could easily start. [Gonzaga coach Mark Few] has a lot of confidence in them, you can tell."

Yet they seem lost on the national front. But why?

Doomed by perpetual excellence, the school's run of 17 consecutive NCAA tournaments and 15 regular-season conference crowns under Few often tempers any ambitious takes about its potential. Gonzaga is Gonzaga. Always and forever, it seems. What's new?

The Bulldogs play at a small Jesuit school in remote eastern Washington. Their games tend to end not long before bars close on the east coast.

Few would rather fly-fish than sell his program to the national media. That isn't a criticism. That's just a fact and an important element of his coveted work-life balance, something many of his Power 5 peers lack. But it complicates the national pitch about the program.

Few lacks Rick Pitino's flair or Bob Huggins' presence or John Calipari's swag. There is no megaphone in Few's office.

Plus, his roster features so many foreign-born players with names many can't pronounce that the school's media guide includes detailed instructions each season. Przemek Karnowski? SHEM-ick CAR-now-SKI. Rem Bakamus? BACK-uh-miss. Rui Hachimura? Don't even try.

The combination of attention deterrents often positions Gonzaga in a familiar shadow.

Lonzo Ball's emergence reignited the national appeal of UCLA and college basketball on the West Coast, a region without a Final Four appearance since UCLA's three-peat from 2006 to 2008. Arizona slipped due to injuries and Allonzo Trier's problems, but the Wildcats enter Pac-12 play with a chance to compete for the league's title. Saint Mary's boasts one of the nation's top offenses and a roster anchored by players from Australia, a hot market after Ben Simmons' rise and the national team's effort in the Summer Olympics in Rio. Oregon, an Elite Eight squad last season, hasn't lost since Nov. 21 (that's 11 in a row).

Gonzaga is just good. Again. Doesn't exactly woo the masses.

"I know we hear it, and we know how we feel about it, and obviously, it puts another chip on our shoulder," Perkins said. "We feel like it's something that happens all the time. It's not new to us. The difference this year is we believe we're as good as our record says. We don't really need other people to tell us how we good we are. We really want it this year."

In the coming months, fans might wonder how this Gonzaga team rolled into a top seed in the NCAA tournament. Yes, the Bulldogs always compete. Yes, they're usually good.

The multi-layered attack in Spokane this season, however, could lead Few's program to its first Final Four. If it happens, the feat will shock only those who have fallen asleep too early to witness one of the nation's premier title contenders evolve.

"I wish we just had more opportunities to prove ourselves because I feel like we're just as good as those teams," Perkins said. "We make it to the tournament, and now it's our job to take this team and take this program to somewhere it hasn't been."

Few views the NCAA tournament as a crapshoot that often rewards the hottest team and not the best team. Still, he's confident his group this year could challenge any squad in America, if given the opportunity.

"I think we can roll out and compete with anybody out there," he said. "That's all we want."

Other reasons to stay up late for West Coast basketball

Chris Boucher and Dillon Brooks
Oregon's Brooks missed three games earlier this season with a foot injury. But his game-winning effort in last week's thriller over UCLA and his 28-point performance in the team's win over USC two days later reinserted the Ducks into the national title conversation. Chris Boucher is as happy as anyone on the roster.

When he's on the court with Brooks, per hooplens.com, the Ducks register 1.21 points per possession while connecting on 56.2 percent of their shots inside the arc and 48 percent of their 3-pointers. When Boucher is on the floor without Brooks, the Ducks dip to 1.09 PPP and 29.5 percent from the 3-point line.

Bryce Alford's revolution
He caught hell from fans throughout a turbulent 2015-16 season. But the move off the ball has allowed the guard to employ his strengths. The greatest difference for Bryce Alford this season? He has connected on 58.2 percent of his shots inside the arc, up from 40.2 percent last season.

Randy Bennett as a national coach of the year candidate
If the Gaels (No. 19 in the BPI) again upset Gonzaga in the race for the West Coast Conference title, Bennett should get a serious look as a national coach of the year candidate.

Washington and the Markelle Fultz experiment
The freshman is averaging 22.3 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 6.7 APG, 1.4 BPG and 1.6 SPG. He has also made 45 percent of his 3-point attempts. But the Huskies lost to rival Washington State on Sunday. At home. Lorenzo Romar's program could fail to reach the NCAA tournament as Fultz puts together an effort that might propel him into the No. 1 spot in next summer's NBA draft. This is college basketball's Russell Westbrook performance. Or perhaps it's just another Ben Simmons situation.

Bill Walton
During the UCLA-Oregon broadcast last week, Walton told a story about the Canadian standouts on Oregon's roster and the collective chip Canadians carry when they compete in the States. He never finished his story, and we have no idea where he was going with the observation, but that's the beauty of Walton. You just listen. Then he says something that only he can say. If you're missing Walton, you're not watching college basketball.

Tim Miles off Twitter ... and it's working

On Dec. 18, Nebraska's coach -- known for his midgame tweets -- sent these ominous messages after his squad suffered a 70-62 home loss to Gardner-Webb.

Yes, college basketball's Twitter coach got off Twitter. And then ... his team won three games in a row.

The streak was capped by last week's road win over Indiana and Sunday's road victory over Maryland. As of Monday afternoon, the coach with 167,000 followers had maintained his hiatus.

Well, if it helps, it's worth it.

Richard Pitino's rise?

On Sunday, Minnesota won a 91-82 thriller at Purdue, despite Caleb Swanigan's effort to win the game by himself. He scored 28 points and snatched 22 rebounds. But Minnesota's Reggie Lynch battled the big man in the final possessions of the game to secure the most impressive win of Richard Pitino's tenure.

Following last year's off-court drama -- multiple players were suspended after a sex tape was released late in the year -- and eight-win campaign, Pitino faced questions about his future. But the Gophers look like a team with a shot at the NCAA tournament and a top-tier finish in the league if they are consistent.

The Gophers failed to hold off Michigan State in their Big Ten opener. Their finish against a good Purdue squad in West Lafayette, however, showcased the elevated ceiling at Minnesota this year.

Will the Gophers reach it? Only if they compete (1.12 PPP, made 54 percent of its shots inside the arc) with the same efficiency and tenacity they displayed Sunday.