It’s pretty tough to pull off, and you need to make your own breaks and catch some breaks along the way. That is what happened in 2013 for the Zags. In a year of uncommon turbulence, the foundation at the top crumbled just enough to give way for a mid-major #1.
In 2003-04, Jameer Nelson and Delonte West led St. Joseph’s out of the Atlantic-10 to the #1 ranking in the country. They went 27-0 and ascended to the top spot in early March when Stanford lost their first game of the season. They stayed in the top spot for all of a week before getting knocked off in the A-10 conference tournament by Xavier. Nelson was the college player of the year though, and they had attention and success and earned a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament despite being ranked 5th going into the dance. They would advance to the Elite 8 that year losing a heart-breaker to #2 seed Oklahoma State.
What was particularly odd about that season? Gonzaga finished the regular season 27-2, ranked 3rd, and seeded 2nd in the NCAA tournament. They’d be upset by Nevada in the second round.
St. Joe’s, however, was not the last true mid-major to be ranked #1. That was actually Memphis in 2007-08. The Tigers would start that season ranked third, take over the top spot in January, and hold it until the final night of the season. They’d lose in overtime to Kansas for the national title. Memphis has been a top ranked team before and after though with a great history predating conference affiliations.
San Diego State and BYU would each climb into the top 6 at different points during the 2010-11 season. New Mexico got into the top 10, and Butler came close the year before. That’s usually as far as it goes in recent history. The game has changed so much with the major conferences expanding to make room for the strong mid-majors.
For example, Cincinnati and Kenyon Martin were #1 in the land in 1999-2000, and it wasn’t long after the Big East would steal them from Conference USA.
UNLV was the best team in America in 1990-91 and cut down the nets, and followed it up with an unbeaten regular season before falling to Duke in the Final Four.
Temple was the shining example for all mid-majors under John Chaney even being the top ranked team heading into the dance in 1988.
Under the current landscape though, what Gonzaga has done to be ranked #1 is most comparable to St. Joe’s. Memphis has always been highly regarded, and isn’t what we think of when defining the mid-major. They also came into the season ranked 3rd that year.
The Hawks had to run off an unbeaten season with the player of the year to climb to the top spot. They didn’t play the out of conference schedule the Zags have this year, but they played in a tougher conference, and were unbeaten, 27-0, when taking the top spot in the polls.
The Zags got there based on the other elite teams inability to keep winning. The losses kept piling up for top ten teams, and voters kept feeling inclined to bump the Bulldogs up in the polls. Although I do not believe them worthy of that top spot, I do believe it an incredible accomplishment for that school and those players.
Being #1 isn’t easy, but getting there is even more difficult, and have proven to be an almost impossible task for a mid-major. More important than the polls though is the success a school like Gonzaga had starting in the 1990’s in the tournament that paved the way for other middies to believe they could make big noise in the NCAA’s.
The Zags actually haven’t been underdogs in a long time. Their name carries weight. They have made Cinderellas believe they could do great things though, and now the Zags, still a little guy at heart, are the biggest, baddest team in college hoops this week.