Gonzaga vs. Wichita State: Will Zags' Ouster Have Lasting Impact for Mid-Majors?
Gonzaga has always been a referendum on the state of college basketball.
When the 'Zags play well, we theorize about the blurring distinctions between mid-majors and their power-conference brethren. We applaud the sport's meritocratic virtues, taking pot shots at its pigskinned counterpart as we go. In sum, we brag.
When Gonzaga fails, we begrudgingly entertain the notion that sustained basketball dominance is confined to the well-endowed few. We remember that a small Jesuit school in Spokane can't possibly recruit the caliber of athletes necessary to win a national championship. In sum, we sulk.
The Bulldogs' 76-70 loss to Wichita State on Saturday was a moment for the latter, the latest reminder that Gonzaga, for all its regular-season success, isn't quite the juggernaut we'd hoped it might be.
Together with the 'Zags surprisingly difficult opening-round win over Southern, the Wichita State loss framed Gonzaga as an undeserving No. 1 seed and laid bare the possibility that future mid-majors might suffer for the Bulldogs' sins.
It is, of course, never that simple.
Each program has its own strengths and weaknesses. Each team has its own merits.
When the next Little College X completes its 30-win regular season, the NCAA Selection Committee will have to determine an appropriate seed based on the minutiae of that particular bracket pool.
Frankly, I don't think Gonzaga losing in the round of 32 will carry much weight in those discussions.
It also stands to mention that recent mid-major No. 1 seeds have actually fared pretty well in the NCAA tournament.
Memphis made the national title game in 2008 and the Elite Eight in each of the two seasons prior. Saint Joe's came within a jump shot of the Final Four in 2004. UMass rode Marcus Camby all the way to a 1996 national semifinal showdown with mighty Kentucky.
The trickier question with Gonzaga is trying to determine how this loss might impact the program's long-term growth.
Have the Bulldogs plateaued? Can they build something better than a perennially competitive team? Can they dominate?
St. Joe's and UMass were one-player wonders. Memphis and Cincinnati (another recent mid-major No. 1) were tradition-rich programs with considerable recruiting reach.
Gonzaga is categorically different as the rare basketball outsider able to retain its head coach and sustain its success over multiple recruiting cycles. That the Bulldogs have done it in an era of shameless power-conference consolidation—without upgrading leagues—is all the more impressive.
But again, that needling question resurfaces: Can Mark Few's program go further?
The same could be asked of VCU and Butler, both of whom also lost on Saturday.
Together with Gonzaga, those three schools form the vanguard of college basketball's outsider revival. Together, they'll help determine the relationship between power-conference basketball and mid-major basketball over the next decade.
Butler, for example, is off to the new Big East next year. For Brad Stevens' school, the allure of big-conference TV money was worth whatever upheaval the transition might cause.
VCU's fate, on the other hand, is almost certainly tied to the whims of Shaka Smart, the Rams' superstar coach. A similar prognosis applies to New Mexico's Steve Alford and San Diego State's Steve Fisher.
And really, the more I meditate on the future of mid-major basketball, the more I come back to the coaches.
College basketball will always have its Cinderellas—the school that lands an underrated talent or the team that heats up in late March.
What differentiates VCU, Butler and (most especially) Gonzaga is that each has an established young coach who seems unswayed by the prospect of promotion.
Few, Stevens and Smart, at least on the face of it, seem to believe they can accomplish what they want where they are.
Perhaps they will. Perhaps they won't. Perhaps they'll abandon the notion and move to some higher ground.
On Saturday, one couldn't help but feel like a higher-ground move is inevitable. The next tournament may very well tell a different story.
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