When we last saw Gonzaga on a basketball court, they hadn’t just lost a national championship to Baylor. They had allowed one of the most annoying narratives in sports to live for another year.
Despite their prominence over the last decade, including two trips to the final game of the college basketball season, a recruiting machine that now regularly attracts NBA lottery picks and a No. 1 preseason ranking in the Ferris Mowers Men's Basketball Coaches Poll, there’s still a stereotype around Gonzaga specifically and programs from outside the power conferences more broadly that they can’t win a national championship.
Going back to Memphis in 2008, Butler in 2010 and 2011 and a host of schools that have gotten to the Final Four but no further, the only modern era national champion from outside the major conferences remains UNLV in 1990.
For the sake of college sports, that needs to change — and fast.
These are perilous times for the majority of the 358 programs playing Division I men’s basketball this season, the vast majority of whom look a lot more like Gonzaga institutionally than Michigan or UCLA.
Though the odds of recreating the Gonzaga phenomenon are long, the very idea of a school in Spokane, Washington, with 5,000 students going from its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance to one of the best programs in the country within 15 years was aspirational. It showed everyone what’s possible for a school that gets into the tournament, pulls a couple of upsets, builds a fan base and invests.
And yet, at this moment in history, it’s fair to wonder whether the Gonzagas and Butlers still represent the egalitarian pathway to prominence that the NCAA Tournament offers, or whether the dream of small schools competing with the big boys will ultimately end up being buried in a time capsule.
When West Virginia coach Bob Huggins told ESPN last week that the major conferences should split off and hold their own postseason tournament, it horrified a lot of traditionalists and those who believe the NCAA Tournament’s inclusiveness is a major part of its popularity.
“Those Cinderella schools are putting 200 people, at best, in their gym,” Huggins said. “We’re putting 14,000.”
Whether Huggins is right or wrong on the merits, he’s not necessarily an outlier within the college sports power structure. And with the NCAA’s power teetering on multiple levels, there are forces ready to pounce over the next few years and leverage the threat of a complete breakaway to tilt the financial and competitive balance even more toward the biggest and richest schools.
This could happen in multiple ways. Over the next few months, the NCAA will complete a restructuring process through a so-called “constitutional convention,” which will undoubtedly result in more rule-making autonomy and power for the schools playing football at the FBS level.
People close to that process have suggested privately that changes to the structure of the NCAA Tournament could fall within that purview, including potentially a change in the way automatic bids are apportioned.
What could happen with automatic bids
Right now, all 32 conferences within Division I have an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. That concept is fundamental to the notion of March Madness, whether it’s Maryland-Baltimore County pulling off an upset of Vermont in the America East title game and then beating No. 1 seed Virginia six days later, or Gonzaga emerging as an unknown from the West Coast Conference in 1999 and making a long-shot run to the Elite Eight.
But what if the big conferences decide that the tournament should have fewer automatic bids and more at-larges, theoretically opening up spots for more of their own teams? Last year, there were four No. 16 seeds ranked below 200 in the Ken Pomeroy efficiency ratings. The No. 15 seeds were ranked between No. 103 and No. 178.
For the most part, those teams are not competitive in the NCAA Tournament. A lot of those games are blowouts — as they should be, given that those teams generally are barely in the top half of Division I. It would undeniably make the tournament field stronger and more of the early round matchups competitive if the number of automatic bids were limited such that only the highest-rated champions of smaller conferences got in.
However, one of those No. 15 seeds last season was Oral Roberts, a team from the Summit League that was ranked No. 152 in KenPom on the day it played — and beat — Ohio State in the NCAA Tournament’s first round. Then two days later, Oral Roberts beat Florida, becoming just the second team seeded that low to make the Sweet 16.
So what makes the NCAA Tournament the cultural phenomenon that it is? What provides the value for the eight-year, $8.8 billion television contract? Is it the brand names like Kentucky and Duke, or is it the sheer unpredictability of an Oral Roberts and the sense that anyone can make a run?
I would argue it’s both, but maintaining that balance isn’t going to be easy. With so many changes to the amateur model being foisted on college sports and conferences realigning from top to bottom around football concerns, the high-revenue athletic programs have different needs than the rest of Division I and are unsure if the NCAA is the best vehicle to administer them.
Not only do the big football-playing schools have less in common with the Wagners and Cal State Northridges than ever, but they also have all the leverage in the world to cut them off at the knees.
Don’t like us taking more for ourselves? OK then, how would you like nothing?
It’s ironic that this conversation is happening at a time when Gonzaga’s program is at the peak of its powers. Not that the Bulldogs or the basketball-centric Big East schools would be in any real trouble if somehow the big schools broke away — those big brands would surely find their way into the mix — but Gonzaga’s very existence implies how important it is that college basketball remains a land of equal opportunity for programs that would never have a shot in a sport like football. If not, what’s the point for a lot of these schools of even sponsoring Division I basketball?
But Gonzaga’s prominence also underscores why this conversation has become so polarizing. Up until the last couple of years, it's been a great story for college basketball to capitalize on but not much of a threat to take the spot of a power conference blueblood.
After reaching 31-0 last season before losing to Baylor, and now adding top recruit Chet Holmgren to the roster, Gonzaga is so close to winning that national championship and completing the journey from one of the sport’s little guys to the mountaintop.
We may look back in a few years and see that chance taken away. The power structure may never allow another Gonzaga to happen again. The Bulldogs are running out of time to shatter that final glass ceiling before the big schools try to permanently affix it over the heads of everyone else who aspires to follow in their footsteps.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Gonzaga men's basketball has one glass ceiling left to shatter