Gonzaga carried a No. 1 ranking all last season before falling a win short of becoming college basketball’s first unbeaten national champion in 45 years.

Mark Few’s Bulldogs start this season in the same position, hoping to complete that final step this time around.

The Zags were the runaway top choice in The Associated Press Top 25 men’s college basketball preseason poll released Monday. They earned 55 of 63 first-place votes to easily outdistance No. 2 UCLA, which earned the other eight. Kansas, Villanova and Texas rounded out the top five, while reigning national champion Baylor checked in at No. 8.

The Zags have accomplished just about every milestone possible in 23 years under Few other than cutting down the nets on the final Monday night of the season. They came close to completing the first unbeaten run since 1976 last year with a wire-to-wire No. 1 team, only to fall to the Bears in a one-sided final in Indianapolis.

Now they’ll try again.

“It is quite an honor to be selected preseason No. 1 for the second consecutive year,” Few said in a statement to the AP. “Our returning players realize the challenge of playing up to that level all year and look forward to it.”

Gonzaga lost AP All-Americans Corey Kispert and Jalen Suggs to the NBA, but second-team selection Drew Timme (19.0 points, 7.0 rebounds) and starting guard Andrew Nembhard return. The Zags also bring in a top recruiting class featuring the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit in 7-footer Chet Holmgren and a five-star guard in Hunter Sallis.

Going back to the 2019-20 season, the Zags have now been ranked in the top three for 32 straight polls, with 22 of those at No. 1.

THE TOP TIER

Second-year coach Mick Cronin has UCLA on a fast climb.

Leading scorer Johnny Juzang (16.0 ppg) headlines a Bruins roster that returns nearly intact after last year’s run from the First Four to the Final Four, where they lost to Gonzaga on a halfcourt shot in an overtime classic.

They are starting with their first top-10 preseason ranking since 2009 and their first top-10 ranking in any AP poll since spending 13 weeks there during the 2016-17 season.

“If we taught anybody anything last year,” Cronin said this month, “your seed or your ranking does not matter come tournament time.”

Kansas has the program’s 10th straight preseason top-10 ranking, followed by the Wildcats and Longhorns, who open their first season under Chris Beard with the program’s highest preseason ranking since 2010.

THE CHAMPS

Baylor has a second straight top-10 preseason ranking despite losing four starters from last year’s title winner, including AP All-Americans Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell. The Bears will try to join Duke (1991-92) and Florida (2006-07) as the only schools to win consecutive titles since UCLA’s run of seven straight from 1967-73.

“As we’ve talked with our team,” Baylor Coach Scott Drew said, “we have a unique opportunity.”

BLUEBLOODS BACK?

Duke and Kentucky are starting with their typically high rankings after seasons unlike many in their tradition-rich histories.

The ninth-ranked Blue Devils are playing the final season under retiring Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski. They’re coming off a 13-11 season that included missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1995.

The 10th-ranked Wildcats are right behind them after a 9-16 season, the program’s first losing record since 1988-89.

Then there’s North Carolina, which made the NCAA Tournament but was inconsistent all season and out of the Top 25 before Christmas. The Tar Heels open at No. 19 in their first season under Hubert Davis, promoted after the retirement of Hall of Famer Roy Williams in April.

WELCOME BACK

St. Bonaventure is ranked for the first time in more than five decades. The Bonnies from the Atlantic 10 are No. 23, marking the first time they have been ranked since January 1971. That season was also the last time the program was ranked in the preseason (No. 20).

• ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale announced he has been diagnosed with cancer for the second time this year.

The Basketball Hall of Fame announcer said he has undergone tests that show he has lymphoma.

Vitale announced in August that he underwent multiple surgeries to remove melanoma. He was declared cancer-free at the time.

Vitale said doctors told him the lymphoma diagnosis is unrelated.

“What’s evident is that the treatment plan for this lymphoma is going to be a lot tougher, and in both cases, early detection played an important role in helping to manage the cancers,” Vitale said in a statement.

Vitale said the treatment plan involves steroids and six months of chemotherapy. He has also been told by medical experts that there is a 90% cure rate. He plans to manage his work schedule around his chemotherapy schedule.

The 82-year-old Vitale joined ESPN less than four months after it launched in September 1979. He has been a longtime supporter of the V Foundation for Cancer Research and hosts a yearly gala for pediatric cancer research.

FOOTBALL: Mississippi Coach Lane Kiffin isn’t optimistic about quarterback Matt Corral’s availibility against LSU.

Corral rushed 30 times for 195 yards in the 12th-ranked Rebels’ 31-26 win over Tennessee, which Kiffin said took a physical toll on the QB.

“He’s not in very good shape,” Kiffin said. “Hasn’t been for the last two days. Hopefully he’ll play but I’m not feeling really good about that right now.”

Corral is a leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy. He has passed for 1,728 yards and 14 touchdowns against just one interception. Corral is also the Rebels’ leading rusher with 450 yards and eight scores.

Kiffin didn’t elaborate on Corral’s status or the nature of his injuries. Corral told reporters after the Tennessee game that he rolled his ankle.

“It’s all good though. It’s a little stinger,” Corral said Saturday night. “It went dead for a second, like a stinger. But I was good after.”

Luke Altmyer replaced Corral briefly in the game, but is 0 for 4 passing this season. Kinkead Dent, who is listed as the second-teamer has completed 2 of 4 passes for 7 yards.

John Rhys Plumlee is a former starting quarterback who was converted to receiver.

Arizona has lost its second quarterback in two weeks to a season-ending injury.

Wildcats Coach Jedd Fisch said Gunner Cruz is done for the year after suffering a thumb injury in Saturday’s 34-0 loss to Colorado. The sophomore is expected to have surgery and will have about a six-month rehabilitation.

Cruz opened the season as the starter but was replaced by Will Plummer after struggling against San Diego State. Cruz became the starter again when Jordan McCloud suffered knee and ankle injuries against UCLA on. Oct. 9. McCloud had surgery last week.

Cruz tore a ligament in his right thumb when he hit his hand on a helmet while throwing a pass that was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. He threw for 536 yards and two touchdowns with three interceptions in five games this season.

Plummer will again be the starter now for the Wildcats (0-6, 0-3 Pac-12) , who have lost a school-record 18 straight games heading into Friday’s game against Washington.

• Washington State fired Coach Nick Rolovich for refusing a state mandate that all employees get vaccinated against COVID-19, a person familiar with the decision told The Associated Press.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, had set a deadline of Monday for thousands of state employees, including the Cougars’ coach, to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or risk losing their jobs. Rolovich applied for a religious exemption.

The 42-year-old Rolovich was the highest-paid state employee with an annual salary of more than $3 million. He had said he wouldn’t get vaccinated but wouldn’t specify his reasons. He was the only unvaccinated head coach in the Pac-12 and had worn a mask during games.

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