When Gonzaga made its first surprising run to the Elite Eight under then head coach Dan Monson in 1999, the headlines referred to the Bulldogs as "Tiny Gonzaga." Funny how no one refers to the Zags as tiny anymore, even though the school's undergraduate enrollment still hovers around 4,000. (Roughly the same size as the Psych 101 lecture section at my big impersonal state university.)
The university is small in size, but the basketball team looms very large in Division I. At 25-2 and a perfect 12-0 in West Coast Conference play, Gonzaga is ranked No. 3 in the nation, and my colleague Joe Lunardi currently projects the Zags as a No. 1 seed in the West region.
We haven't seen a team from outside the six "major" conferences seeded on the top line since Memphis received that honor in the 2008 tournament. The fact that Gonzaga might be a No. 1 seed next month marks the Bulldogs as unique among recent mid-major teams. And it raises a question. Could this be the year that a mid-major wins the national championship?
The odds will always be in favor answering that question in the negative, of course, and this season is no exception. You have to go all the way back to UNLV in 1990 to find a national champ that did not claim major-conference membership. (And the top-seeded Rebels of the Larry Johnson era were hardly a bunch of plucky underdogs.) However, there are two reasons why Gonzaga does give mid-majors their best shot at a national championship in years. First, the Zags are indeed one of the best teams in the country. Second, and equally important, Mark Few's team is correctly perceived as one of the top contenders for the title. And, as we'll see, perception matters a great deal.
An explosion on offense.
Gonzaga was, of course, a very good team last season, one that entered the NCAA tournament with a 25-6 record. That was only good enough for a No. 7 seed in the eyes of the selection committee, however, and the thing about teams on the 7 line is they usually don't hang around long. In the round of 32 the Bulldogs crossed paths with top seed Ohio State, and, while Few's team made the Buckeyes work, in the end the Zags came up on the losing end of a 73-66 final score.
Coming into 2012-13 Few had lost seven-footer Robert Sacre to graduation, and in fact one of the striking things about this season's highly successful team is how it's possible to win 25 of 27 game yet still show signs of missing a player. Gonzaga is significantly worse this season on the defensive glass, and the Zags also make fewer trips to the line. Both developments speak to Sacre's absence, but the Zags have offset these dips in performance with a dramatically improved offense.
To trace that improvement, let's go back to the preseason for a moment. In addition to Sacre's departure, the other thing we knew about the Bulldogs coming into 2012-13 is that they were bringing back Kelly Olynyk after a redshirt season. When last we saw Olynyk in 2010-11, he was 20 pounds lighter and he sported much shorter hair. He was also a reserve on a team dominated offensively by Sacre, Elias Harris, and Steven Gray. I spoke with Few in September, and he was at pains to tell me how excited he was about Olynyk's development in his redshirt year. Right, I thought. Coaches always say that about redshirts. It's coach speak.
Turns out Few was right to be excited: Olynyk is a legitimate candidate for national player of the year. In West Coast play, the 7-0 junior is making a machine-like 65 percent of his twos, and he's done that while personally accounting for 30 percent of the Zags' shot attempts during his minutes. You don't often see accuracy and volume brought together at such high levels, but Olynyk is doing just that and serving as a poster child for redshirt players everywhere.
Olynyk's emergence has been a clear benefit to his teammates, as opposing defenses have struggled to cope with the sheer number of weapons Few has at his disposal. Though mired in a strange and unmistakable slump from the perimeter, Harris has attempted as many twos this season as Olynyk and is also converting those looks at a high rate. Kevin Pangos has followed up on a much decorated freshman season by hitting 44 percent of his threes, and Gary Bell and Sam Dower have continued to serve as highly efficient sources of points outside and inside the arc, respectively.
The sum of all these moving parts is a vastly improved offense. Last season Gonzaga scored 1.09 points per possession in West Coast play. This season that number is, incredibly, all the way up to 1.20, while the defense has remained just as strong (excellent) as before. Big gains in offensive rebounding and three-point accuracy in particular make the Zags a legitimate threat to win it all.
But to do so, Few's team will first have to prevail in an area not strictly related to performance.
Why perceptions help Gonzaga's chances to make history.
Perception is often dismissed as a frivolous afterthought, one that's unrelated to "pure" performance. But in a world where a selection committee seeds and brackets a field of 68 teams, perception is vitally important.
And the first task facing any mid-major trying to do the unthinkable is to convince the committee to cough up good seed. Some of the strongest mid-major teams of recent seasons have been given seeds ranging from low to lousy. Look no further than Gonzaga itself. In the 2009 tournament Few had an excellent team, one led by Austin Daye and Josh Heytvelt. But the committee looked at some early-season losses recorded by that team -- and one to Portland State in particular -- and gave the Zags a No. 4 seed. That put the Bulldogs on a collision course with eventual national champion North Carolina, and the Tar Heels beat Gonzaga soundly 98-77 in the Sweet 16. Similarly, the amazing thing about Butler's run to the 2010 title game is not simply that a "small school" made it that far, but that Brad Stevens' team got the job done as a No. 5 seed.
To make history, it helps to get a bracket that keeps you away from your fellow top contenders for as long as possible. And the fact that the Zags are being talked about this season as worthy of a No. 1 seed helps their title chances immeasurably. It's still a long shot, sure. But the specter of a mid-major national champion is now more likely than at any point in the last five years. We may be watching history in the making in Spokane, Washington.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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