Apropos to nothing Clippers-related (aside from the proud feelings no doubt felt by former Zag Ronny Turiaf), the Gonzaga Bulldogs rose to the top spot in the AP top 25 for the first time in school history today. The Zags are also number one in the coach's poll.
Gonzaga's rise to national hoops juggernaut is completely unprecedented. For many years, Gonzaga was a West Coast Conference doormat, far behind conference basketball powers like Pepperdine, USF and (going back to the seventies) UNLV. Even when John Stockton played for the Zags in the early 80s they never went to the NCAA tournament or really had much success in the conference. Although the Zags have won 15 of the last 19 WCC regular season championships and and 11 of the last 18 tournament championships, they did not win their first basketball championship of any sort until 1995.
Which makes their rise to perennial national power all the more astonishing. The Bowl Championship Series system was implemented in 1998, and the Zags made their first big splash in the NCAA tournament, making a run to the Elite Eight, in 1999. Big schools from big conferences that play big time football have always had an advantage in terms of athletic budgets and television revenues, but the creation of the BCS made that advantage even more pronounced and systemic. The fact that Gonzaga, a private school with an enrollment of less than 8,000 in Spokane, with little or no prior basketball tradition, has established itself as a destination for top recruits DURING the BCS era verges on the unbelievable.
There are a few other national programs outside of the BCS. Memphis remains steadfastly in Conference USA, and Butler and Creighton have established winning programs in mid-major conferences as well. But those teams are receiving overtures from the former Big East and other big conferences, while Gonzaga and the WCC seem to be taking a different approach, hoping to establish a west coast basketball-only conference to rival the big six.
I do want to point out something misleading in the sidebar to this AP story about Gonzaga's historic ranking. The sidebar makes the following point:
The Zags ... are the third non-BCS school that voters have sent to the top: Gonzaga (2012-13), Memphis (2007-08), Saint Joseph's (2003-04).
The AP poll has existing since 1949, but the BCS has only existed since 1998. Three non-BCS numbers ones since 1998 is a very different thing than three since 1949, which is the implication. In fact, there is a long tradition of top programs from smaller conferences in the history of the NCAA. UNLV won a title in 1990 and was ranked number one several different times while Jerry Tarkanian coached the Runnin' Rebels going back to the seventies. USF won titles with Bill Russell in the 50s and was the top ranked team multiple times again in the eighties. Indiana State with Larry Bird, UMass under John Calipari, Louisville, DePaul, Cincinnati and Marquette before they joined the Big East, Houston's Phi Slamma Jamma team, Temple, Bradley, LaSalle, St. Louis, Wichita State, Holy Cross, Loyola of Chicago -- By my count there have been at least a dozen other number ones from outside the Big Six in the history of the AP poll, 16 if you count the earlier history of some current Big East teams. It turns out there was a time when great basketball teams were allowed to play in any conference, not just in those with the biggest TV contracts.
Happily teams like Gonzaga and Creighton and Butler and VCU and George Mason and others continue to play high level college basketball, despite not having all of the advantages of being in a Big Six conference. And for those of us who root for the underdog, it's great to see the Bulldogs on top today.