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Jerry Sullivan: Zags are an underdog, but a mid-major in name only

It didn't hit me until late Saturday night, an hour or so after Gonzaga had held off  South Carolina in the first Final Four semifinal. Hey, a mid-major is going to play for the national championship again!

The problem is, I barely think of Gonzaga as a mid-major anymore, as some cuddly upstart looking to take down the college hoop giants. The Zags have become one of  those giants, the rare program that can hold its own with the powerful and privileged when it comes to scheduling, recruiting and making regular trips to the NCAA Tournament.

But Gonzaga does qualify as a "mid-major." It's an unofficial designation for schools that aren't among the five power football conferences (SEC, Pac-12, Big Ten, ACC and Big 12) or the two acknowledged power basketball leagues (the Big East and the American).

Gonzaga plays in the West Coast Conference, which is ranked eighth in the conference RPI rankings, just behind the elite seven. That's largely because of the Zags, who beat Florida, Iowa State and Arizona in non-league games on neutral floors and take a 37-1 record into Monday's title game against North Carolina.

So while they're a mid-major by the strict definition, the Zags aren't like those Cinderella mid-majors of recent vintage, like George Mason in 2006 and VCU in 2011, teams that came out of the Colonial Athletic as 11th seeds and went all the way to the Final Four.

Gonzaga is more like the great UNLV teams of the early Nineties, who blew out Duke in the 1990 NCAA title game and went unbeaten until losing to Duke in the national semifinals a year later. Think of the Zags as UNLV without the Rebel sleaze.

Mark Few, the Zags' head coach, is about as far from Jerry Tarkanian as you could imagine as a character. But their records are strikingly similar. In 20 years at Vegas, the towel-chewing 'Tark' went 509-105, an .829 winning percentage.

In 18 years at Gonzaga, Few is 503-112, good for an .818 winning mark. Among coaches with 500 victories, he's second behind Adolph Rupp and one spot ahead of John Wooden. Tarkanian, who had other coaching stops, is 10th all-time at .792.

Both Few and Tarkanian had teams that dominated a western mid-major conference. The Zags have won 14 West Coast Conference tournaments and reached the NCAAs in every one of Few's 18 years as head coach. UNLV dominated the Big West at the height of the Tarkanian regime.

Like those vintage UNLV teams, Gonzaga has a packed roster for a mid-major school. This is the deepest, most talented team they've had. It's not as if Few has done it all these years with a rotating cast of future NBA stars. A few Zags have made a modest impact in the NBA (Kelly Olynyk and Domantas Sabonis being the latest), but John Stockton remains the last Zag to average at least 10 points for an NBA career.

There are at least three NBA talents on Gonzaga. Zach Collins, a 7-foot freshman from Las Vegas, is the program's first McDonald's all-American, a possible one-and-done who is projected to go between eighth and 15th if he comes out. In Saturday's win, Collins had 14 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks (career highs in the last two).

Junior guard Nigel Williams-Goss, their top scorer and one of the most complete players in the nation, is seen as a second-round NBA pick. Killian Tillie, a 6-10 freshman Frenchman, is projected to go as high as ninth in the 2018 draft.

They say you need at least two future NBA players to win an NCAA title. I'm reminded that the 2010 Butler team, at the time a mid-major, came within an eyelash of winning it all. They seem like less a Cinderella when you consider they had Gordon Hayward, an NBA star, and Shelvin Mack, a solid NBA backup, in their lineup that year.

Gonzaga has two on its bench. The Zags also have a veteran starting lineup, led by William-Goss, 7-1 Polish center Przemek Karnowski, forward Johnathan Williams (a transfer from Missouri) and guard Jordan Mathews (a transfer from Cal).

The Zags are a worth championship contender, something that many of the experts missed when they assumed that Few's team would stumble before the Final Four again. There's a reason they finished the regular season with the best record in Division I men's hoops and the No. 2 ranking in the country.

Gonzaga is second in the nation in offensive AND defensive field-goal percentage, an unheard of achievement. They're second in defensive rebounds. It'll be interesting to see how they handle the boards against a supremely talented North Carolina team that leads the country in rebounding by a ridiculously large margin.

The Tar Heels, who lost to Villanova on a last-second shot in last year's NCAA title game, are looking for their third national championship under Roy Williams. Carolina leads the nation in offensive rebounds and is fourth in assists. It's a lethal combination and makes for a compelling matchup in Monday's final.

It looks to me as if the two best teams in the country are meeting in the final. Gonzaga is for real. North Carolina is a two-point favorite. The Zags, after all they've accomplished this season, are in the rare position of underdog. It's only fitting.

After all, they are a mid-major.

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