Why Gonzaga's No. 1 Ranking Is a Game-Changer for Mid-Major Athletics
The Gonzaga Bulldogs earned their first ever No. 1 ranking in the AP Poll on Monday, and the ensuing media hubbub is bound to sound something like:
"Blah blah they didn't play anybody blah blah they'd be .500 in the Big 10 blah blah blah Kelly Olynyk looks like the mutant lab child of Napoleon Dynamite and Fabio blah blah blah..."
Polls are meant to generate this type of idle bluster. It's college basketball's way of monopolizing our emotions before we get to the stuff that actually matters.
So instead of engaging in the usual do they/don't they deserve it debate, let's talk about Gonzaga as a program. Let's talk about what its ascent means for other mid-majors. Let's talk about what it represents in the uneven, chronically obstructed, but ultimately certain growth of college athletics outside the Power Six conferences.
And let's start here: Gonzaga isn't the No. 1 team in the country today because it has a 29-2 record. It is No. 1 because it has a 29-2 record and because it's Gonzaga.
In other words, Gonzaga matters—a sentiment whose very self-evidence speaks to just how far the program has come.
When the Bulldogs broke onto the college basketball scene in 1999 with their improbable run to the Elite Eight, Gonzaga's basketball legacy might have been properly summarized as: Irrelevant Catholic school in Eastern Washington graduates John Stockton before returning to irrelevance.
Even when the 'Zags returned to the Sweet 16 in each of the next two years, the program was still largely understood as a March curiosity, its reputation wrapped up in Gus Johnson's famous line from that very first tournament run:
"The slipper still fits."
In other words, we expected the Bulldogs to disappear, especially after coach Dan Monson skipped town for Minnesota and ceded the job to a wan-looking 35-year-old assistant named Mark Few.
Turns out the Few kid could coach, and recruit.
In Few's 14 years at the helm, a program that never before earned an AP ranking has now spent 157 weeks in the Top 25. There are four active Gonzaga players in the NBA, and six who have appeared in at least 100 NBA games over the past decade.
This year will mark the Bulldogs' 15th consecutive season in the NCAA tournament. For all its dominance, even mighty UCLA has never had a longer streak.
But the implications of Gonzaga's success extend far beyond the particulars. Gonzaga isn't merely a rogue success story, it's the vanguard of a movement to reclaim college basketball from the hegemony of the Power Six.
To understand just what that means for the game, we have to start with a bit of (admittedly condensed) history.
In the early decades of college basketball, major state universities like Kentucky and Kansas competed on relatively even footing with what we would now call FCS schools—institutions like La Salle, San Francisco, Holy Cross, Bradley, Texas-Western, Duquesne, Loyola and the City College of New York. Competitive balance wasn't necessarily better, but it was more evenly distributed between different types of schools, and the barriers to entry weren't nearly as high.
Even as late as the 1970s, schools such as Penn, Marquette (then independent), Charlotte, DePaul (also independent), Memphis State and Detroit (coached by some Vitale guy) were nationally relevant.
Then the 1980s hit. Independents disappeared. Super-conferences formed. And the balance of power in college basketball began to look suspiciously like the balance of power in college football.
The death knell came in 1991, when Miami, Virginia Tech, West Virginia, Temple and Rutgers joined the Big East, effectively diluting the last basketball-first conference and setting the stage for what would soon be known as the Power Six.
When the Big 12 formed five years later, the transformation was complete. Football interests had sapped college basketball of its parity, remaking amateur hoops in its own monolithic, intrinsically exclusive image.
In essence, Big Football had created Big Basketball. And by the time Jesus Shuttlesworth was choosing schools in 1998, it's no coincidence that a fictitious "Big State" was the leading candidate for his services.
In the 10 years beginning with the 1991-92 season, 23 different teams made the NCAA Final Four. With the exception of Cincinnati—who would eventually join the Big East—every single one was either a state school or a member of the Power Six.
The names read like a roll call of power conference royalty:
Indiana, Michigan, Cincinnati, Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Oklahoma State, UCLA, Massachusetts, Mississippi State, Syracuse, Minnesota, Stanford, Utah, Ohio State, Michigan State, Connecticut, Wisconsin, Maryland.
(The only exception in spirit was Marcus Camby's 1996 Massachusetts team, and even John Calipari would tell you that the Minutemen were a flash in the pan.)
That's the grim preface from which Gonzaga emerged in 1999—a decade of utter dominance by schools flush with football gate receipts and mega-conference TV deals. The playing field had never been so tilted, which is part of what makes Gonzaga's success so remarkable.
Gonzaga was the first school outside the Power Six to build something more substantial than a one-player, one-tournament fluke, clearing the path for Butler, VCU, Wichita State, Xavier and every other upstart-turned-stalwart of the past decade. Not only were those schools able to recruit the caliber of athlete necessary to thrive, but AP voters and committee members had to take them seriously in light of Gonzaga's continuing prosperity.
Even mighty football has been infected with a mutant strain of the mid-major revolution. Boise State, TCU, Hawaii, Utah and others have made such a mess of the BCS—a cabal designed to uphold the status quo and line in the pockets of the major conferences—that college football must now reluctantly embrace a tournament-style playoff system, one not unlike the system through which Gonzaga first made its name.
Without the brackets of March, there would be no brackets of January—and for once, it is football who must yield to powers beyond its control.
Gonzaga reaching No. 1 is the final-stage manifestation of a greater movement in college athletics, a reminder that paths to prosperity still exists for teams outside the FBS monopoly and a sign that the tent of basketball contenders might someday resemble its former dimensions.
From modest March inroads, Gonzaga's footprint in the world of amateur sport has grown large and lasting—the tracks of a true giant.
At last, the slipper no longer fits.
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