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Creighton vs. Gonzaga is the mid-major success story we need

Two programs that climbed the mid-major ladder meet Friday for a top-25 showdown in Spokane.

NCAA Basketball: AdvoCare Invitational-Gonzaga vs Quinnipiac
Gonzaga head coach Mark Few
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

There was a time, not very long ago, when these two were the cream of the mid-major crop.

Friday’s match up of the No. 25 Creighton Bluejays (5-1) and No. 15 Gonzaga Bulldogs (6-1) in the Kennel might not be the marquee mid-major game it would have been five years ago, but it’s a welcome blast from the past that should be an all-around great college basketball game.

In week four of the 2012-13 season the Creighton Bluejays were ranked 11th in the AP Poll, and the Gonzaga Bulldogs sat just behind them at 12th. Every team above them came from a power conference, and no other mid-majors were ranked in the top-20.

Creighton and Gonzaga had been on that level for some time. Mark Few’s Bulldogs have never finished outside of the top-50 in KenPom (which goes back to the 2001-02 season) while Creighton had spent all but one season (2010) in the top-100.

After the 2013 season it was clear that both programs had achieved the mid-major dream: sustained success at the highest level of the sport. From that point, though, these two mid-major darlings decided to take different paths.

The 2013 season was a high water mark for Gonzaga basketball. Gonzaga earned a one seed in the NCAA Tournament and a No. 1 ranking in the polls for the first time. Gonzaga wasted little time improving upon that banner year.

It was also a memorable year for the Bluejays, as it was their final year in the Missouri Valley Conference. Fed up with football, which had turned the once venerable Big East into a bloated mess of a conference, the original “Catholic seven” basketball programs abandoned their gridiron-loving neighbors and struck out on their own. High-level mid-major basketball programs from Butler, Xavier and Creighton were added to round out a ten-team, basketball-focused league.

For fans of mid-major basketball, realignment is almost never a good thing. But Creighton’s ascendance through the mid-major ranks, and eventual departure from them, is hard to hate. The Bluejays might not be a mid-major anymore, but the new Big East is as basketball-friendly of a conference as there’s ever been.

Gonzaga, like Creighton, might not be a mid-major anymore either. The Zags’ affiliation with the West Coast Conference is the reason we cover them at Mid-Major Madness, and it’s worth all the grief we get on Twitter.

Looking at these two this season it’s clear they’re not the mid-majors they once were. Gonzaga’s coming off a trip to the National Championship game, after all.

The Zags were invited to last week’s PK80 not just because they’re a Nike school, but because they’re a Nike school that can compete in a field that includes teams like Duke, Ohio State, Florida and North Carolina.

Creighton already has two wins over teams that won NCAA Tournament games last season. The Bluejays picked off Northwestern on the road and then beat UCLA in the Hall of Fame Classic, and both teams were ranked in the top-25 at the time.

So yeah, these aren’t mid-major programs anymore. They’re not because they’ve become too good to be mid-majors. They’ve done it not like TCU or Utah, or any other program that has risen up the ranks in search of football money. Gonzaga and Creighton have elevated themselves by being too good at basketball and by wanting to stay too good at basketball.

There’s no reason to root against a team that has become good at basketball by putting basketball first. Unless, of course, two such teams face off against each other.

No. 25 Creighton at No. 15 Gonzaga
Friday, December 1 at 7 p.m. (Pacific)
Spokane, Washington
TV: ESPN2