Gonzaga University, our cross-state comparison, ascended to the highest ranking in college basketball recently, reaching number one for the first time in the program’s history. In doing so, Gonzaga has set an example for the way that a Mid-Major can achieve long-term success in college basketball.
Seattle University has the opportunity of being such a team.
Like Gonzaga, Seattle U plays in a conference that is consistently winnable, offering an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Like Gonzaga, Seattle U has the ability to make a name for its program, even more so than if Seattle U had been part of the WCC.
With the WAC reshaping itself over the next few years, Seattle U has the ability to become the dominant force in a conference that is going through transformation. During Gonzaga’s 10-year period of WCC dominance, the Bulldogs were consistently the team to beat to gain a berth in the NCAA tournament.
However, Seattle U will need to start recruiting and acting like a mid-major to do so. To attempt to recruit against the University of Washington and other Pac-12 schools on the West Coach would be foolish. The ability to find hidden gems is slowly becoming a matter of looking outside the U.S., or finding the overlooked players in the backyard.
Kevin Pangos, Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris are all starters for Gonzaga. All are from outside the United States, and all also made the West Coast All-Conference team.
All of these players are examples of the way mid-majors are setting up recruiting channels outside of the typical mindset of where college basketball players come from. While Kentucky continues to bring in blue-chip prospects, mid-majors can continue to find diamonds in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, etc.
However, Gonzaga’s ability to bring in recruits would not be what it is if not for the success they’ve seen over the past 10 years. Simply put, to bring in the type of recruits to compete, you have to show that you are a perennial NCAA tournament team. Seattle U has that opportunity, with the WAC becoming a depleted conference in coming years.
All of this is not without obstacles, though. Gonzaga has the benefit of an on-campus arena that seats 6,000. They are a school with 8,000 students. Do the math, and you’ll realize that getting a ticket to the game is a hot commodity, and something that ensures a packed stadium night in and night out.
Seattle U, on the other hand, has the benefit of a large stadium with 17,000 seats available, albeit mostly part of the unused second level. However, the off-campus factor most certainly detracts from the ability to fill the stadium and create the same type of environment that an on-campus arena does.
In an age where home court dominance can go a long way towards team success, having empty seats and a less-than-raucous atmosphere can certainly detract from a team’s ability to protect the home court. In Gonzaga’s nearly 10 years in the McCarthey Athletic Center, they have lost fewer than 10 games. I repeat, less than 10 games in 10 years. That amount of home court dominance has led to Gonzaga’s success year after year in the WCC, amounting to nearly 15 straight NCAA tournament appearances.
On the court, Seattle U can actually learn more from Butler University than from Gonzaga. Gonzaga’s prominence is more attributable to recruiting than to results, especially in recent years. Gonzaga has been unable to make it past the second round of the NCAA tournament the past two years, and has only made the sweet 16 once in the past six, a period that has seen them exit in the first round twice.
Butler, by comparison, has made back-to-back trips to the championship game in 2010 and 2011, making it seem as if Gonzaga is hardly the team to learn from. Butler’s two championship runs have been centered around stellar defense and a commitment to efficiency on offense. During Butler’s first trip to the National Championship game, they became the first team to hold each opponent under 60 points since the shot clock was introduced in 1985.
Another added benefit of Butler’s two recent NCAA Championship game appearances? An estimated $1.2 billion from added publicity and a 41 percent increase in student applications to the university. Basketball, as it turns out, has a big influence on publicity, often deciding whether students know of a university and want to attend or not.
To rise to a position of basketball prominence as a mid-major has been shown to be far from impossible, and with the right combination of recruiting, support and ability, Seattle U has the possibility of becoming the next team to make that jump. Whether each piece will fall into place remains to be seen. But history has shown that one NCAA run can change everything.