Don't Call Them Mid Major

Over the next couple months, we'll be taking a look at some of the college basketball programs in the west. We start with Gonzaga and explain why they may be headed for even greater heights in the future...

If you ask the average college basketball fan which school has the best program in the west right now, you would probably get a pretty consistent answer -- Arizona. But ask them who has the second best program and there are going to be a number of different schools mentioned. Oregon would merit very strong consideration after their Elite Eight run last year. Over the last five years or so, Stanford has been (along with Arizona) one of the two best teams in the Pac-10. Based on recent tournament success, UCLA and USC would probably be brought up. The more knowledgeable fans might even tell you that Cal and Arizona St. are on the verge of building very good programs. And there's plenty of reason for optimism in places like Wyoming, San Diego St. and Pepperdine.

But we think you can make a very good case that the school with the second best program in the west right now is Gonzaga. While Gonzaga has been very good for a number of years now, Mark Few and his staff may be ready to take the program to an even higher level. And the reason we see a bigger upside for the Zags is pretty simple. Gonzaga is now able to go head to head with the Pac-10 schools for some of the best players in the west. They may not be able to get in on every kid -- we don't see them beating out Arizona very often for a great player who lives in Los Angeles -- but they are certainly able to compete for nearly every good player in the Northwest. And there are signs that they might now be able to leave the Northwest for selected elite players elsewhere.

Gonzaga's initial success was built on discovering talented players like Casey Calvary, Matt Santangelo, Richie Frahm, etc. that were overlooked by the traditional powers. Those diamonds in the rough would then be polished by a rigorous player development system (which usually included a redshirt year). Then, after a couple years in the program, you saw a different player than the one who had been passed over by "high majors" three or four years earlier.

These days, however, Gonzaga is recruiting players who could play for any program in the Pac-10 (save, perhaps, Arizona -- which is recruiting Duke/NBA level players). Freshman power forward Sean Mallon would play extensive minutes right now for most of the high major programs in the west. At Gonzaga, Mallon is redshirting. Sophomore wing Errol Knight, who is sitting out this year after transferring from Washington, was recruited out of high school by Kansas. So you've got two players on the bench this year that will likely be all-conference type players down the road.

From the 2003 class, the Zags have commitments from point guard Derek Raivio and small forward Adam Morrison -- both among the best in the west at their respective positions. David Pendergraft, the #1 rated small forward from the West Coast class of 2004, has already committed to Gonzaga. And the Zags are among the early leaders for Jordan Farmar, rated #2 among point guards in the west, and Josh Heytvelt, who will be a consensus top 20 national player by next spring. Even in their recruiting misses, Gonzaga is showing just how far they've come as a program. Christian Drejer, the freshman wing who is described as perhaps the best player on Florida's loaded roster, had Gonzaga as his second choice.

One overlooked aspect to Gonzaga's success, though, is that it isn't just about talent. The players that Mark Few, Bill Grier and Leon Rice are bringing in aren't just talented individuals -- they're almost always solid team guys as well. Gonzaga is recruiting good kids, who are receptive to coaching and who put team goals ahead of individual accomplishments. In an era of me-first players who view the college game as a pit stop to the pros, the Gonzaga approach is not only refreshing -- it's proving to be highly successful as well.

Finally, we'd like to offer our take on the whole "mid-major, high-major" debate. In our opinion, it's very simple -- Gonzaga is now a high-major program playing in a mid-major conference. Were they a high major program when they first burst onto the national scene a few years ago with their tournament run? Probably not. But given their continued success, the level of talent in the program, and their prospects for the future, it's impossible to argue that Gonzaga is anything but a high-major basketball program.

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