By Kevin Sweeney
Is Gonzaga a mid-major?
This question comes up seemingly every year around this time, but this year it is even more of a hot-button topic than usual. The Bulldogs are out to their best start in school history, 23-0, and are currently ranked #1 in the nation, so naturally, discussion about the Zags is rampant.
Some make the argument that, since Gonzaga makes the NCAA Tournament almost every year, they can no longer be classified as a mid-major. However, unless you plan on classifying teams like Missouri, Rutgers, and other futile high-major programs as mid-majors due to their struggles on the court, that statement doesn’t hold much merit.
See, success isn’t the only factor in determining how a program should be classified. For one, facilities should certainly be considered.
Gonzaga plays its home games at McCarthey Athletic Center, a 6,000 seat venue known as “The Kennel” to those who follow the program. That may seem small on the surface, but consider that the school has only just over 5,000 undergraduate students. To compare, Villanova, a school of around 6,500 undergraduates, plays most of its home games at The Pavilion, a 6,500 seat facility. While they do play a few home games at the Palestra and at Wells Fargo Center, home of the 76ers, The Pavilion is their true home floor.
“The Kennel” is one of the toughest environments in college basketball (attribution: CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia Commons)
Let’s continue the comparison between the two programs. In recruiting, Gonzaga can stand toe-to-toe with almost any team in the country. Per verbalcommits.com, Gonzaga’s team has an average star rating of 3.1, while Villanova’s sits at 3.8. However, Gonzaga’s number is hurt by recruiting international players like Przemek Karnowski, as many international players are automatically given 2-star grades. On American players, Gonzaga consistently recruits 3, 4, and 5-star players such as freshman center Zach Collins, a McDonald’s All-American.
How about exposure? Gonzaga will have 14 games this season nationally televised on the ESPN family (not including ESPN3), with all others on ESPN3 or ROOT Sports, a rebranding of the Fox Sports regional channels. They, like Villanova, are used as a featured team in non-conference exempt events such as the AdvoCare Invitational, which they played in this season. Mid-majors are usually afterthoughts in these events, thrown in to ensure a win for a high-major program.
We wouldn’t question Villanova’s status as a high-major, so why do we question Gonzaga?Well, many would cite the conference that the teams play in. Villanova is a member of the Big East, and was part of the old Big East before it folded. Meanwhile, Gonzaga plays in the West Coast Conference, which beyond BYU, St. Mary’s, and Gonzaga truly doesn’t compare to the Big East.
To simply label a school a mid-major based on its conference is short-sighted to say the least. Much of the reason that Gonzaga is in the WCC is location. Gonzaga’s school profile would fit perfectly in the Big East. It’s a smaller, catholic school without a FBS football program that plays basketball at a very high level. However, it doesn’t seem to make sense to join a conference in which every road trip would be over 1,300 miles with 6 being over 2,000 miles. So unless Gonzaga plans on moving its campus several hundred miles east, the Big East isn’t a feasible option. The only conference that makes sense based on location that would be an improvement basketball-wise is the Mountain West, but it too is often classified a mid-major and focuses on schools with football, something Gonzaga doesn’t offer.
So are we really going to change how we classify a program based on its location? That seems narrow-minded. Gonzaga is a high-major school trapped in a mid-major conference, so the college basketball community should stop acting as though Gonzaga is somehow different then other top college basketball programs. The generation of high school recruits who are ready to make their college choice don’t see the Zags as anything but a blue-blood power, one that has reached the NCAA Tournament every year since they’ve been born. The talent will continue to flow in as it is already doing, and even if that elusive Final Four bid doesn’t come this season, it, and potentially a national title, seem to be in the Bulldogs’ near future.
Here’s the bottom line: if Villanova can win a national championship, the Bulldogs certainly can too.