For the most part, the lists leave little to truly debate. The overall team talent pool is down this season, and that leaves the best teams to truly rise to the top.
One of those teams is Gonzaga. Jeff Goodman and Matt Norlander picked the Bulldogs to make the Final Four this season, which would be there first in school history.
To me, this is a cycle. Every year (or every few years) Gonzaga has a team that people say is a “Final Four-caliber team”. Then every year that team plays average against their non-conference schedule or plays a lackluster slate. They then proceed to lose to a few in-conference games to a St. Mary’s/San Francisco/Portland. They may win the West Coast Conference tournament, but their RPI is never high enough and they end the season with a 5-though-9 seed and at-best a Sweet 16 exit.
My point is, since 1999 and the days of Matt Santangelo and that magical Elite Eight run, the Zags have had one of the most solid “mid-major” programs in the history of the phrase. They’re an enviable program.
But they’re still not the “Gonzaga” everyone expects to see year-in and year-out.
See, there’s always a trail that leads back to Gonzaga when pundits and publications label mid-major teams. Quick, what’s the first team when you think of the term “mid-major”? Probably Gonzaga. Because they’re the benchmark.
When VCU and Butler both made their Final Four runs in 2011 and 2012, they were compared, however loosely, to Gonzaga. As far back as the Antonio Gates-led Kent State team that made the Elite Eight in 2002, the Bulldogs were looked upon as the standard — at the time just three years removed from Dan Munson’s Elite Eight squad — and the Golden Flashes heard the “this is a Gonzaga-like run” lines.
That’s a compliment to the program. Gonzaga, since the turn of the century, has been viewed as the alpha dog when it comes to mid-major consistency. So much so that the Bulldogs are no longer considered a “mid-major” program by traditional standards. They don’t play a mid-major non-conference schedule. They recruit nationally and internationally and along with Syracuse, make the best use of their geographic location by grabbing a ton of top-tier Canadian talent. They have the advantage of not having to compete every fall with a football program. The fan-base is concentrated, but rabid. The McCarthey Athletic Center, better known as “The Kennel”, is widely viewed as one of the best home-court advantages in all of college basketball.
But in order to fully break away from that mid-major tag, the Zags have to make a final big splash. They have to make a Final Four.
For a team that does as well as the Bulldogs do recruiting — they’ve had six players in the NBA since 2002, not to mention it’s the alma mater of John Stockton — and in a conference that routinely provides enough tests to prepare them for the rigors of the college basketball postseason as the WCC does, Gonzaga, to a degree, has underachieved on a national scale.
Fan-bases can deny it all they want, but the term “mid-major” isn’t exactly a compliment. And in all truthfulness, the Bulldogs shouldn’t be viewed as a mid-major team anymore. But the only way to do that, even after all they’ve accomplished, is to be one of the last four teams standing in late March or early April.
That’s not to say that the Zags are a failure. No program with 10 conference tournament titles, 12 regular season conference championships, five Sweet Sixteens and an Elite Eight appearance, all in the last 13 seasons, can be called a failure. Mark Few has stated that he’s totally happy and content in Spokane and there’s no reason to think he won’t cap his coaching career there. Few and Gonzaga are seemingly a perfect fit for the long haul.
But sooner or later, the Zags are going to need to make a Final Four if they want to live up to that national hype that they receive on a yearly basis. Not for respect, respect is already there. But to be Gonzaga. The same Gonzaga that every year gets it’s lion’s share of the hype it’s expected to live up to.