There's a debate raging in Hoops Nation, one that has very little relevance whatsoever to anything relevant. It's supposed to be about respect, honor and parity. It should be about ball control, free throws and the flex offense. And sure, it's about basketball -- a little bit -- but it's also about television and eyebrows.
This is a debate about what a mid-major is and what it isn't... but at its very root, it's really about which teams are in The Club and which teams it's okay for the media to ignore
There probably wouldn't be any discussion at all about this if not for George Mason, wonderful glorious super-great George Mason. If it wasn't for a team that was all about unselfishness, ball control, hot shooting and basketball joy that made it all the way to the Final Four, these wins by non-traditional powers over traditional powers could be dismissed as momentary feel-good aberrations, like they've always been.
But things are different now. No, this isn't an "mid-major uprising" or any other exciting-sounded quickie tagline, this is a Soft Revolution of sorts that will take years and decades, one that has been percolating for a time already. It's also an exciting and continued exploration into the game itself, an inquiry into how systems and team play can beat payable talent. Sure, it will eventually result in a greater distribution of basketball talent throughout the land and "grow the pie" beyond the same-old 50 or so schools you see on TV all the time. It means more teams will be able to win more games more often, especially at the Tournament. And there's nothing you, or name-brand TV announcers, will be able to do about it, so cancel that hair appointment and book some extra time for research.
But no, seriously, what is a mid-major? It's the number one question I get asked in chats, e-mail and on the street (look, I'm walking here). We have to do this every so often around here, and I'm more than happy to do so. You may have your opinion, your mileage may indeed vary, but these are the conferences that I cover for the multiple media outlets I serve. Resistance is futile. I mean, what, are you going to convince me that I have to go to East Carolina games?The Origin and Evolution Of The Term"It was everything that basketball's about at the level of our program. For a game between two 'mid-majors,' or whatever you'd call us, it had anything you could ask for."
Jack Kvancz, the great former Catholic University head coach who mentored many who serve in today's coaching community, said this in November 1977, and it's the first recorded use of the term. Basically, it was a tossaway postgame quote, one of hundreds that litter reporters' notebooks and occasionally make it into a . Who knows where he picked it up from, but it's important to note that the game he was referring to was between CUA and Howard, a member of the MEAC. That's right, a school that's now in the second-lowest RPI conference in the country was an original "mid-major." Think about that for a second.
When the school that would eventually become Unnamed Major Program From the Northwest
emerged in the late 1990's, journalists struggled for the correct term for a non-traditional power that came out of an media-underserved conference and beat the pants off teams it shouldn't have. Some genius -- and I'll get down to the bottom of this one someday -- suggested a certain two-decade old term that started with M. It was catchy, and it stuck.
It took a while, but that particular school broke through to the media consciousness, started showing up on TV a lot, built a shiny new gym, and transcended the raggedy, determined underdog label it used to enjoy. I mean, power-conference schools come to their place now just for the RPI points. And, as I'm always quick to say, good for them.
So what's a mid-major now?The Blue Collar Comedy Tour Test
* Does your school spend less than $15 million on athletics, or less than $2 million on men's basketball operations?
* Does your conference tournament occur in a building smaller than an NBA arena?
* Has it been at least a year since your last national television appearance (and ESPNU doesn't count)?
* Do power conference teams refuse to set foot in your building?
* Has Jay Bilas failed to show up for one of your home games?
If any or all of the above apply, then you just might be a mid-major."Low Majors"
If there are high majors and mid-majors, it only follows that there are low majors, right? I say wrong. When I ask people to define a low major conference, it usually translates to "a conference I'd never heard of that never wins games." A mid-major league, therefore, is "a conference I'd never heard of that wins games."
But out of sight, out of mind doesn't work here. With every team in D1 having a theoretical shot at the national title (the one that they show on CBS to millions of viewers in March), snapshot states of "winning" or "losing" make this more difficult than it has to be. I mean, is Winthrop a low-major because they're in the Big South, or are they a mid-major because they have a high RPI and have therefore elevated the profiles of leaguemates like High Point and Coastal Carolina? What happens to the Patriot League's status when recent mid-major darling Bucknell drops off? Too confusing and too context-temporary, and it misses the point of what this is all about.
The concept of the Mid-Majority is all about doing more with less, and the all-American opportunity to make dreams come true -- look at me, I'm a hack blogger who didn't finish journalism school but got a big-media gig anyway. But is an American who hasn't fulfilled his or her American Dream yet any less of an American? Can I get a "hell no?" Hell no!
Is an America East team that hasn't yet won an NCAA Tournament game any less of an American D1 basketball program? Hell no!
So, in my view, the America East, SWAC, MEAC, MAAC, NEC, Big Sky, Big South, Ivy, OVC, Patriot, SoCon and Southland -- all the perennial one-bid leagues -- are indeed mid-major conferences, as are the Independents, who theoretically could be invited (well, theoretically theoretically, at least). By being in the middle between the power conferences and all the non-qualifiers in D2, D3 and the NAIA, every team in D1 has a chance
at glory. And ain't that America, for you and me.Disqualified From Mid-Majordom Forever
There are certain conferences that are built on TV, greed, and the pursuit of lucrative sports-related entertainment and merchandise sales. Most of them are obvious: the Big Bloat
and Satan's Evil Conference come to mind immediately. But there are also the leagues like Conference USA and the Mountain West that have the same goals, but just aren't as successful or shrewd about it. The C-USA wanted big sports entertainment and ended up with Marshall playing Houston.
And as for the Mountain West, those teams split off from a great and wonderful historical conference, the Western Athletic Conference, after a series of late-night airport handshakes one fateful night. Therefore, the WAC is granted honorary mid-major status by virtue of its victimized and underserved basketball programs, as well as its valiant "outsider" position in BCS football. Go get em, Boise State.Familia
Despite the efforts of some to judge schools on their individual merits instead of groups (read: less teams to have to acknowledge), your conference is your family. Once you've had your non-league fun in November and December, these are the folks you get to hang with all winter (sucks to be South Florida). So yeah, we do it by conference around here.
At least after the holidays you get to gently kick your in-laws out. But in most cases, everyone in the Horizon League, Sun Belt, Mid-Continent and CAA all have to fight it out over a single ticket to freedom, and your March fate (and schedule strength) is determined by your January and February surroundings. Nothing subjective about that, nor will there ever be.The Oddballs: The UMPFN Problem, and What Of The A-14?
OK, but sometimes you have to choose sides. I don't think anybody short of the folks who run that toilet-paper Mid-Major Top 25 poll think that the school from Spokane that wears dark blue and red uniforms is a mid-major program anymore. Sure, they've elevated the WCC to national prominence... well, sorta. The whole idea was that increased television exposure would help spread the wealth and build up the other programs in the league... but that's been real slow in coming. Of course, when ESPN Big Monday shows a Portland-San Francisco game in prime time and promotes the hell out of it, then maybe we'll get somewhere.
Then there's the Atlantic-14 conference, which is the only one I split coverage on, the only one I get slightly arbitrary with and the only one I lose sleep over. It's got mid-major sensibility (Holding the conference tourney in Atlantic City? Cool!) but high-major manifest destiny (Adding former C-USA schools Charlotte and Saint Louis? Yuck!) There's a Big City side (Saint Joseph's, George Washington, Temple, etc.), a mid-major Town & Country side (Rhode Island, Richmond, Saint Bonaventure) and a lot of grey area (city teams like Fordham and Duquesne that are low-budget operations in big cities). And yeah, it's way too confusing. That's why I try to stay out of it as much as I can.
The Missouri Valley Conference
As I often say, if your 1 media market is Wichita, you're going to have a problem getting love and representation in the big cities and in Bristol. And here's a little preview of the next five years: no matter how many tournament bids the league gets, you'll hear plenty of excuses about the consistency of individual teams within the conference, and whether it's more convenient to measure that by Tournament runs or appearances is up to the pundit. It's already happening, and it's a shame.
The "Is the MVC a mid-major or not" debate is one of the most boring blah-fests ever devised. Yes, they play high-major quality basketball there, but they do it on pennies-on-the-dollar compared to the SEC, or even its former leaguemates in the Big XII. It's a special case that deserves a separate table of its own, and as long as the talking heads devalue its accomplishments and keep Creighton (12-4 vs. the Big XII over the past decade, by the way) and Wichita State out of The Club, I'll have no choice but to continually defend its honor. And trust me, I will.
Yes: America East, Atlantic Sun, Big South, Big Sky, Big West, Colonial, Horizon League, Northeast, Ohio Valley, Ivy League, Metro Atlantic, Mid-American, Mid-Continent, Mid-Eastern, Missouri Valley, Southern, Patriot League, Southwestern Athletic, Southland, Sun Belt, West Coast (except UMPFN), Western Athletic, and the Indies
No: Atlantic Coast, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Conference USA, Mountain West, Southeastern, Pac-10
Um, sorta: Atlantic 10
It's said that in 1989, before Princeton came within a point of defeating Georgetown to nearly become the first 16 to beat a one-seed, the NCAA was seriously considering shrinking the Tournament field to make the event more TV-friendly, to weed out all the pesky unknowns. But after the nationwide buzz and excitement that game produced, there was no way they could go through with it. My hero and sorta-colleague Alexander Wolff called it the game that saved the Tournament as we know it.
People -- ones with souls -- love underdogs. Not because an upset is a chance to stick it to the powers that be (although that's kinda fun for a second), but because there's something very American Experience about overcoming huge obstacles and doing things you're not expected to with limited resources. People love George Mason and Butler, and some of those people actually went there. People love "Hoosiers" and "Glory Road," because those are movies that speak to this condition.
Now, imagine there's a movie called "Total College Basketball Domination." It's about a school that lands Top 25 recruits, graduates 25% of its players, bends countless NCAA rules, and trades courtside seats for new car rentals. It starts out with a scene with a history professor giving the star guard a special abridged oral exam, there's a 15-minute montage (with an arena-rock soundtrack) in which they crush a series of SWAC teams by 50 points each at home, and then there's the part at the end when they win the National Championship on CBS. Will you pay to see this movie?
I'll say it again: mid-majordom is not about wins or losses, it's about resources and resourcefulness and making do with what you have. Some -- like our dear friends at UMPFN -- will break through to national prominence and provide roadmaps for others. Many will have temporary or modest success and bring glory and honor to their schools. Others will experience the thrill of beating a team that it logically shouldn't have any business being on the same floor with.
But as we continue with this ongoing journey, there will be more and more things that are currently unthinkable (a 16-over-1 at the NCAA's, a SWAC team beating a Top 25 squad on its home floor, the end of "guarantee games") will be within the very real realm of possibility. And I hope to be there, pen in hand, when it all happens.
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