I love New Year’s.
It’s a time to look back on the year and remember all the good, while looking forward to the new year and pondering what exciting things it has in store.
This year was great for college basketball fans. Even though Duke won the national championship–or maybe because Duke won the national championship–there were plenty of memorable moments, exciting games and great stories to go around.
Without a doubt, the new year will have a lot to live up, but before we look forward, let’s take a moment to look back at 2015, and one of the best teams of the year: the Gonzaga Bulldogs.
Gonzaga had a year to remember in 2015. In the spring, the Bulldogs advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament for the second time in program history–the first time since 1999.
Then, following All-American forward Kyle Wiltjer’s decision to return to school for his senior season, the Bulldogs were considered a Top 10 team by many experts entering the 2015-16 basketball season, as well as a possible Final Four contender.
If you look at the total body of work, its obvious that Gonzaga had one of the better years in college basketball. But if you compare it to other mid-major programs around the country, something else becomes obvious: Gonzaga was the best mid-major in 2015.
Sure, there are other teams who belong in the conversation–Northern Iowa was a legitimate Top 25 team last season and has already knocked off two teams ranked in the Top 5 this season, while Wichita State has arguably the best backcourt duo in America when healthy–but it’s hard to give anyone else other than Gonzaga the distinction of being the year’s best mid-major.
For starters, let’s take a look at the end of last season. Gonzaga dominated the West Coast Conference, compiling a 17-1 conference record en route to a WCC regular-season championship.
Following their impressive season, several Bulldogs earned conference honors. Gonzaga boasted the WCC Player of the Year (Kevin Pangos), Newcomer of the Year (Kyle Wiltjer) and Defensive player of the Year (Gary Bell Jr.).
Gonzaga followed up the regular season by winning the WCC Tournament and entering the NCAA Tournament as the No. 2 seed in the South region. The Bulldogs won their first three games in the tournament before falling to eventual champion Duke.
The Bulldogs finished the 2014-15 season with a school-record 35 wins and only three losses. The team won 22 consecutive contests, which was also a program record.
As good as the Bulldogs were last season, it’s easy to see why expectations were so high entering this season.
Even though the Bulldogs lost their entire starting backcourt, they returned the most talented frontcourt in the country. And although there’s been some growing pains with the team’s young backcourt, the froncourt–led by national player of the year candidate Wiltjer–has been good enough to help the Bulldogs compile a 10-3 record so far this season.
Sure, the loss to UCLA was disappointing, but Gonzaga’s other two losses came to ranked teams–Texas A&M and Arizona–by a combined six points, and although the Bulldogs are barely hanging in the Top 25 at No. 24 in the Coaches’ Poll, they’re still better off than other mid-major powers — besides George Washington, they are the only mid-major who appear in any ranking.
What will 2016 hold? Will Wichita State find its footing and return to its Top 25 form? Will Northern Iowa break into the rankings? Will Dayton make a push with the return of Dyshawn Pierre, or will George Washington rule the A-10?
There’s plenty of questions surrounding mid-majors, but right now Gonzaga looks like it’s in the best position to make a strong run through conference play. If the Bulldogs do that and make another deep March run, they’ll be the undisputed champ of the mid-majors.