We get to experience something on Monday that is increasingly rare.
In terms of quantity, college basketball is overrun by mid-majors. There are 351 Division I teams and we cover 265 of them. But in terms of quality, the 86 schools from the seven high-major leagues are dominant. That stands out in March and is normally especially prominent in the Final Four. Which makes Gonzaga’s run to the championship game even more impressive.
If you include this year, there have been 79 title games and 158 participants. Only 22 of those have been mid-majors. That’s less than 14 percent.
And if you think that’s a grim statistic, you’re in for some bad news, because recent history is even worse. If you look at the past 38 title games, since 1980, that 14 percent drops down to a measly 5 percent — only four of the past 79 title game participants have been mid-majors.
The gap between the haves and have-nots is more like a canyon at this point. But it hasn’t always been this way.
If this was the 1940s you could get away with overlooking the magnitude of a Gonzaga team in the title game. In fact, most schools weren’t affiliated with a conference at all, let alone one that exudes national prestige.
That decade, Dartmouth made it there twice out of the Ivy League, in 1942 and 1944. Wyoming, from the Mountain States Athletic Conference, won the thing in 1943, and independent Holy Cross did it in 1947. Even NYU, which no longer sponsors Division I basketball, made it to the title game in 1945.
The Metropolitan New York Conference’s CCNY, another team that no longer competes in Division I, opened the next decade with a title in 1950 by taking down Bradley out of the Missouri Valley. The Braves fell short once again in 1954, that time to independent La Salle. The Explorers made it back to the title game in 1955, where they ran into a Bill Russell-led San Francisco squad. The California Basketball Association’s Dons made it back-to-back championships when they won again in 1956. Two years later, independent Seattle tried to take the title up the coast, but fell just short.
It was in the 1960s when the mid-major leagues really started to fall behind. Only three mids, all independents, made it to the final in that decade. Loyola Chicago won in 1963, UTEP (then Texas Western) did so in 1966, and in 1967 Dayton was the runner-up.
Only two mid-majors made the title game during the ‘70s, and neither cut down the nets. In 1970, independent Jacksonville advanced out of a Final Four field featuring three mid-majors, only to fall to UCLA in the title game. Larry Bird and Indiana State wrapped up the decade as MVC champs and runners-up in 1979.
As for the next decade, let’s just say ‘80s nostalgia does not exist among mid-majors.
Since the Sycamores’ title game loss in ‘79 only four mid-majors have made it. And depending on who you ask, those teams don’t even count as mid-majors. UNLV was a Big West powerhouse when the Rebels won in 1990. Butler made back-to-back appearances in 2010 and 2011 as members of the Horizon League, but the Bulldogs are in the Big East now.
And this year, it’s Gonzaga, a team even we’ve admitted isn’t a mid-major anymore.
But Gonzaga plays in the West Coast Conference, a league outside of the power structure. The Zags live in the land of the have-nots, and what once was a gap between the haves and have-nots has grown into a chasm.
That’s why every fan needs to take a moment to appreciate what Mark Few and his Gonzaga Bulldogs have done this season.
It’s April and a team from a mid-major league is 40 minutes away from winning it all. That’s a sentence you don’t get to read every year.