March 18, 2009 11:39 am ET by Kyle Whelliston
INDIANAPOLIS -- The year 2006 wasn't really all that long ago. Sure, we're dealing with problems light years beyond those we faced back then, and anybody would trade in total world financial meltdown for another "bird flu" scare. But Nelly Furtado's "Loose" feels like it just came out yesterday, innit? Most current seniors were freshmen. The inaugural World Baseball Classic happened that year, remember? It was a gentler and far more halcyon time.
It was The Year Of The Mid-Major. At the NCAA Tournament, eight mid-major schools won their first-round games, and three broke through to the Sweet 16. And of course, there was George Mason, taking matters all the way to the Final Four. It was an exciting time for me as well, from a professional standpoint. For a brief moment, my chosen pursuit of documenting this world was intriguing, vibrant, relevant on a national level. There was plenty of irrational exuberance about the "little guy" back then, and plenty of idle chatter about the sudden "parity" that existed in college basketball.
I didn't see parity, I saw eight teams with inferior resources that found ways to defeat well-heeled units with superior game plans, coaching ingenuity, heroic performances, solid systems (and yes, ball control). In the week between the Elite Eight and the Final Four, I wrote this column about the importance of money in Our Game, about how nothing was going to change the fact that teams like George Mason spent 20 percent of what UConn laid out for men's basketball operations. I mentioned that things like that catch up over time. It wasn't really what people wanted to hear in the happiness of the moment.
The year 2009, at least so far, has not been The Year Of The Mid-Major. Not a single team south of the Red Line that won on the NCAA's Big Bracket three years ago made the 2009 Tournament -- Wichita State, George Washington, Bucknell, Northwestern State, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Montana, Bradley or George Mason are all simply wishing this time around. Followers of this site, or college basketball in general, will recognize that most of those teams didn't even come close. Of those eight, only George Mason even made its league title game.
I talk about the Red Line a lot. It's a self-made creation, sure, but it is as simple a way as there is to cut through all the constantly shifting definitions, the ones based on winning or analyst expectations or perceived legacy. There are eight leagues with average athletic budgets of $20 million or more, 23 that have less. Twenty-one of those have men's basketball budgets below $2 million (the Atlantic 14 and Missouri Valley are the two exceptions). Gonzaga's results are exempted from either side, because that's a freakshow that can write its own nonconference TV schedule and sell sweatshirts in New York City.
And it can be summed up in one sentence: teams in the richest eight conferences beat teams in the other 23 leagues 87 percent of the time.
I get a lot of letters about the Red Line. The vast majority want me to change it, or they have their own ideas that are based on winning or analyst expectations or perceived legacy. These letters are usually paragraphs and paragraphs long. My response is 18 words long: teams in the richest eight conferences beat teams in the other 23 leagues 87 percent of the time. Then there are the constant questions.
Q: Why don't you go by men's basketball budget? That would put the Atlantic  over the line, where it clearly belongs.
A: Overall athletic budget helps take into account important elements like facilities, operations and media relations. The A-14 is a combined 20-37 (.351) against the richest eight conferences this season. By the way, nine of 10 dentists agree that teams in the richest eight conferences beat teams in the other 23 leagues 87 percent of the time.
How about other lines, like one at $10 million? Why don't you define "low major?"
Two guys walk into a bar. One says, "Hey, did you know that in college basketball, teams in the richest eight conferences beat teams in the other 23 leagues 87 percent of the time?"
The Red Line is not a poverty line, or the border where pride ends and panhandling begins. The Red Line is not a red flag, some kind of reminder that wealth should be redistributed. That already happens with the ugly and abominable practice of guarantee games. It's simply the demarcation between those who are given everything that they need to win, and those who have to earn and take every single thing they get. It's not the line between Richie Rich and Oliver Twist, but you know which side each would be on. Conference USA and Mountain West have schools that take football a lot more seriously than they do basketball, but they have all the resources they need to make hoops a priority -- if you have 25 or 30 million to spend on athletics, do like Memphis and spend a quarter of it to buy a basketball power. We don't have that luxury of choice.
As George Mason proved in 2006, individual wins can't be purchased... on the other hand, consistency can. Consistency is an invisible thing made out of perks, million-dollar coaching contracts, private jet flights to recruits' games, sufficient bankroll to send the entire staff to Las Vegas for summertime meat markets, package deals that include jobs for blue-chip relatives.
None of the eight low-seeded small-conference teams that won games in 2006 can afford any of those things. None of the 248 teams that live under the Red Line can, for that matter. Life in this world is a constant blur of compromises, bottom line-watching and day-long bus rides. Charter flights have to be reserved months in advance, and it's all night on the bus if you miss the departure time (it even happens in the Valley). That is, when you can afford a coach at all. On short-notice trips, you might have to rent three minivans from the airport Hertz and squeeze everyone in. I've seen it happen.
And that's what makes all of us one big mid-majority, and what most analysts and pundits can't or don't choose to understand: to survive and advance from our side of the Red Line is a series of challenges and struggles, and every champion that's made it this far has done so because it kept going in the face of all obstacles. Each of these 25 teams represent the hardest workers and the superior innovators among their peers -- not necessarily those with the deepest pockets. Every team of ours that will win on Thursday and Friday will do so despite financial disadvantages, and each will take something that doesn't belong to them: part of that precious 13 percent of the pie.
This boldness is also an attitude we all share on this side, because the only other options are mediocrity and failure. I recall something that Davidson head coach Bob McKillop mentioned during the throes of the Wildcats' February losing streak that ultimately cost the team its chance to follow up its amazing run to the Elite 8.
After the BracketBusters loss to Butler, McKillop said, "Last year we got to the Elite Eight because there was no sense of entitlement. We went after it, we grabbed it, we took it. At this point, in the last 10 days or two weeks, we've kind of let it come to us, rather than take it."
Davidson took again last night -- beating South Carolina on the Gamecocks' own floor in the NIT. And with superior game plans, coaching ingenuity, heroic performances, solid systems (and yes, ball control), they'll take more in the future. Those teams that will excel and win over the next several days will do so because they, like the Wildcats in 2008, take what wasn't readily offered, and wasn't for sale anyway.
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