SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) -When No. 14 Gonzaga lost four of five games to close 2008, some observers wondered if this much-ballyhooed Zags team was overrated.
Probably not.
The Zags have won 16 of their 17 games in 2009, many by ridiculous margins. They head into this weekend's West Coast Conference tournament as the favorite, and are nearly certain to make their 11th straight NCAA tournament.
While they lack a dominant superstar, the Zags have so many strong players that slowing their offense is difficult. And this team is strong on defense.
The latest example was Tuesday's 90-40 demolition of South Carolina-Upstate. While no one expected the Spartans to win, the domination was total. The Zags held them to 29 percent shooting and forced 26 turnovers, while committing only four themselves. They outscored the Spartans 37-2 off turnovers, 36-18 in the paint and 16-2 in transition.
``They are a team that can make the Final Four,'' Upstate coach Eddie Payne sighed afterward, echoing many preseason predictions.
Heytvelt and Matt Bouldin, plus emerging stars Austin Daye and Steven Gray, and sharpshooter Micah Downs, expectations were high that this might be the first Zags team since the 1999 squad to get past the Round of 16.
Heytvelt is certainly doing his part, averaging 15 points and nearly seven rebounds per game. Bouldin is averaging 13 points, Daye 12, and Pargo and Gray nine each.
The Zags won their first seven games, climbing to No. 4 in the polls. Then in the span of two weeks they lost to Arizona, No. 1 Connecticut in overtime, Portland State and Utah to fall out of the Top 25.
That's not uncommon for the Zags, who play a brutal non-conference schedule to make up for playing in the lightly regarded WCC.
But the Connecticut loss especially seemed to sap some confidence. Pargo, the reigning WCC player of the year who flirted with turning pro, suddenly began struggling with turnovers and shooting. The nadir was a 77-70 home loss to unheralded Portland State, only the third Gonzaga loss at the McCarthey Athletic Center since it opened in 2004.
The turnaround began with an overtime win at Tennessee on Jan. 7. Then Gonzaga waltzed through the WCC, winning 14 games by an average of 20 points. The sole stumble was a blowout loss to No. 5 Memphis in the Spokane Arena on Feb. 7.
elt and Pargo.
``He was beating himself up a little bit,'' after Connecticut, Gonzaga coach Mark Few said of Pargo. ``He's playing better.''
The Zags have a bye into Sunday's semifinals of the WCC tournament in Las Vegas, a break that makes Few nervous. Last year the Zags struggled to beat Santa Clara and San Diego after a similar bye.
``They were a little bit tight,'' Few said of his team.
He thinks the Zags might face Santa Clara or San Diego in the semis, two teams that like a slowdown game.
The Zags are pleased the tournament is in Las Vegas, a neutral site. For years, the WCC tournament was held at a predetermined home court of a WCC team, meaning the Zags got no home court advantage from winning nine straight WCC regular season titles.
``Finally it's fair to the student athletes,'' Few said. ``It's never been fair.''
The tournament is nearly sold out, and a large number of Gonzaga fans are leaving frozen Spokane to enjoy some time in the sun.

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