Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
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Gonzaga Shedding ‘Mid-Major’ Label With Run to NCAA Championship Game
By DENNIS CHAMBERSGLENDALE, Ariz. — Forty minutes of good basketball play separates Gonzaga from their first ever national championship.
And if they pull it off on Monday night against the North Carolina-Oregon winner they will finish their season 38-1.
But people will still call them a mid-major.
Despite hearing the comments, Gonzaga’s players aren’t letting the knock on their path to the last game of the 2016-17 college season bother them.
“We just heard everything this year — we’ve heard the conference, we’ve heard we haven’t played tight games, that we’re not tough, we’ve heard everything,” Nigel Williams-Goss said after his team beat South Carolina 77-73 in the national semifinals. “Again to be 37-1 and playing the last game of the season, it’s just a blessing and I just couldn’t be more happy to be playing with these guys.”
To reach this point of their season, Gonzaga dominated their opponents in the West Coast Conference. But the reason detractors are so harsh on a team that is playing in their 19th straight NCAA Tournament is because of the sheer lack of competition their in-conference opponents present.
The West Coast Conference is comprised of 10 teams, six of which register an RPI rank of 125 or worse. Four of those teams are ranked 204 or worse. In short, the majority of the conference isn’t very good.
Zach Collins knows it, but he doesn’t really seem to care.
“If you go to Gonzaga you know you’re gonna hear it all year no matter how good of a regular season you have because of our conference,” Collins said. “But what made us great all year was that we just stayed in this locker room. We heard it outside and we used it as motivation, but we didn’t get separated.”
Being referred to as a mid-major is supposed to come off as an insult. Typically, that comment is reserved for a team that isn’t part of the traditional “Power 5” conferences (Big-10, Big-12, PAC-12, ACC, and SEC). But Gonzaga’s track record doesn’t look or sound like the usual mid-major suspect. As noted, they’ve made 19 straight appearances in the NCAA Tournament, and their current budget is nearly double the next highest program from a non-Power 5 conference.
“Yeah, I don’t know if Gonzaga is a mid-major anymore,” Josh Perkins said. “I think over the years we’ve proved that with winning. I think this makes the next step for our program, and our coaches were hungry for it. That showed off in their coaching and the recruits they got for us this year.”
Should Gonzaga go on to lose the national championship against either North Carolina or Oregon – two power conference schools – the narrative that the Bulldogs still can’t compete with the country’s best opponents will linger. That’s why Collins and his teammates came into this week focused on much more than just making an appearance in the Final Four.
“I think we wanted to make it a point that we weren’t here just to get to a Final Four,” Collins said. “We’re here to win the whole thing. That was the whole talk the whole week. We celebrated after we got to the Final Four, but the next day it was all business.”
In their first ever attempt at a national championship, coming out on top would prove once-and-for-all that Gonzaga can play with the big boys of college basketball. Reaching the pinnacle of the sport should silence all doubters who look to insult the Bulldogs by calling them a mid-major.
Or so you would think.
“I don’t think anyone will be silenced about Gonzaga,” Collins said. “I think we’re always gonna be told we don’t play in a good conference. Mid-major, power five, you know at the end of the day you have to play games against the teams you play. We never really worried about that. Our schedule is what our schedule is and we played who we played in the tournament, so we aren’t worried about what people say about that.”
Photo: Kelvin Kuo/USA Today
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