Midmajor College Basketball Report: Gonzaga, Creighton & Wichita State

The midmajor college basketball teams were quiet last March. After a 2011 year that saw Virginia Commonwealth make the Final Four and Butler reach the national championship game for the second straight year, 2012 belonged to the big boys, with power conference teams controlling the bracket by the regional final round and only Ohio and Xavier making the Sweet 16.

If this year is going to be different, we can start the conversation with the three midmajors in the national rankings—that would be Gonzaga, Creighton and Wichita State and it’s this trio who all get a closer look today.

Gonzaga: The Zags lost to #10 Illinois, but the Illini are undefeated thus far, and Gonzaga has strung together some wins over power conference teams in West Virginia, Clemson, Oklahoma and Washington State—none by themselves are incredibly dazzling, but taken collectively it’s a run that at least tells us that Mark Few’s program is on a path back to the NCAA Tournament.

Gonzaga’s success the last couple years has come from controlling the paint, and even with Robert Sacre gone, that should hold true again this year. Elias Harris back at the power forward spot and averaging 17 points/8 rebounds a night, while 7’0” junior Kelly Olynyk has stepped into Sacre’s role and put up a 14/7 average. The perimeter is in good hands with sophomores Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. They underwent trial by fire last year, getting starters’ minutes as freshmen and are now experienced beyond their years.

Last season’s tournament saw Gonzaga knock off West Virginia before losing to eventual Final Four participant Ohio State on the first weekend. The weaknesses this year’s Zags team have is depth—there are really no quality contributors beyond the four players mentioned, as well as outside shooting. While both Pangos and Bell are good playmakers and can score, there’s no one on this team who can really loosen up a defense by hitting the trey. Finally, both Pangos and Bell are undersized, at 6’2” and 6’1” respectively, and it’s easy to see a national power with bigger guards able to create matchup problems.

Overall, I think this is a good team, but one in the recent Gonzaga tradition—good enough to get to the NCAA, perhaps win a game, but I don’t see them matchup well against true national contenders.

Creighton: Doug McDermott is the small forward and the 6’8” junior might be the best player in the country, averaging 23/7 per game and hitting better than 50 percent of his shots both from the floor and behind the arc. He makes Creighton a threat against anybody.

Even better is the fact McDermott has plenty of help. Gregory Enrichque goes 6’9” and hits the boards. The backcourt is deep and well-balanced. Austin Chatman and Gary Gibbs are both excellent distributors and each can score when they have to. Chatman hits 56 percent from three-point range, and Gibbs goes 6’5”, giving the Bluejays the outside shooting and matchup edges that Gonzaga lacks.

Creighton beat Alabama in last year’s NCAA Tournament and only lost to North Carolina, who reached a regional final. There’s no reason to think the Bluejays can’t be a Top 16 team this year. The lack of anyone taller than 6’9” on the frontline and general depth issues in the post are what keep them from going higher.

Wichita State: The Shockers were the one team in this trio who was a disappointment in last year’s NCAA Tournament, losing to Virginia Commonwealth in their first game. Wichita knocked off VCU by a bucket earlier this season, but they still have some backcourt issues to work out.

There’s no one at the guard position averaging in double figures, though both Demetric Williams and Evan Wessel can shoot the trey, so whether their scoring rises as the season goes on and defenses start to pack it in, will be something to monitor. Right now the Shockers rely on two high-quality forwards in Cleanthony Early and Carl Hall, who combine to produce 27 points and 12 rebounds a night.

Wichita is a well-coached and has a nice basketball tradition, but it’s tough for me to see them doing serious damage on a national scale. If we were to assess the midmajor college basketball landscape, I’d identify Creighton is the real threat, with Gonzaga and Wichita State needing improvement.