The Decline of Mid-Majors in the Tournament
March 27, 2017 by Ross Lancaster • Print Story •
In many ways, Gonzaga's triumphant blowout win against Xavier on Saturday evening to make its long-awaited first Final Four in school history should have been a victory for mid-major college basketball.
After all, it marked the first time since 2013 that a school from a non-power conference has made the final weekend of the NCAA Tournament, and gives more NCAA prize money to the West Coast Conference, a group of mostly small Catholic schools in the Pacific time zone with smaller athletic budgets.
However, when I look back on this tournament that's been slightly disappointing as it reaches its conclusion, I think I might always remember it as the year that I realized that true mid-majors simply don't go deep in the tournament anymore.
In my mind, it's been since the thrilling 2013 tournament that we've truly had mid-majors advance into the second weekend of the NCAAs. I'm not sure that general pattern is going to be changing soon.
Now, you might be asking yourself, "Wait, he led off the column with Gonzaga, who's been in the Sweet 16 the last three years, and Wichita State was a second weekend team in 2015. Aren't those mid-majors?"
And my answer is an emphatic no. Not when Gonzaga spends about a third of its athletic budget on men's basketball and can effectively set its own non-conference schedule each November and December. For Wichita, not when their coach and program are bankrolled by one of the most controversial billionaires in American life, and not when a power-conference move to the AAC looks likely in the coming months.
Dayton made the Elite 8 in 2014, and perhaps that's a longer conversation, but that program also spends Gonzaga-like big bucks on it's basketball programs, and it hosts NCAA tournament games at its home arena every single year.
This isn't to say that we should begrudge these programs at all. And in fact, their successes without playing high-level football (or football at all in the case of Wichita and Gonzaga) in an era where the almighty football dollar rules all in college sports.
Also, if we're talking about the quality of play in the tournament, perhaps a lack of low seeds/smaller programs is actually good for the product. Maybe this is just my NBA snobbery coming out, but the quality of play, in my mind, has improved as the tournament has gone on after a first round that was as lackluster as any I can remember.
But at the same time, as a lifelong fan of the sport, it's disconcerting to realize that schools like Cornell, George Mason, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Davidson, and Northern Iowa who have been to the Sweet 16 or further in the tournament this millennium during purple patches for their respective programs are going to have an even tougher time.
Ironically, former mid-majors and 2017 Sweet 16 participants Butler and Xavier probably have shown the best blueprint for modern ascendancy from mid-majordom: put enough resources into the program, and win enough in your smaller/lower-budget conference that a power conference eventually comes calling when significant realignment happens.
Essentially, it's class mobility for college sports. Where they've been crucially important in football for years, mega-conferences and TV money for basketball are now nearly must-haves for competing and, as the past few years have shown, even getting into the second weekend of the tournament.
The NCAA is also doing schools no favors by continuing to use the RPI for Selection Committee purposes, when there are better, performance-based systems out there. With strength of schedule being such a big part of the RPI, non-power leagues are always going to be at a disadvantage when richer programs don't want to play them. It's a cycle that shows no signs of coming to an end, even after the committee intimated it would be using the better numbers more starting last season.
Kyle Whelliston, who once ran the now-defunct Mid-Majority site starting in 2004, initially saw Sweet 16 appearances for true mid-majors to be something like a sliding-scale national championship. By 2006, after George Mason made the Final Four, I thought that distinction was perhaps conservative and that mid-majors would soon be competing for national titles.
Brad Stevens, Gordon Hayward, and Shelvin Mack proved me right a few years later. Now, its probably time to dial back expectations for smaller-budget conferences and schools. In the era of exploding TV money and mega-conferences, the accomplishments of, say, Middle Tennessee to beat high-seeded Big Ten schools two years in a row should be viewed as a Sweet 16 once was.
Schools doing more with less and pulling off stunning upsets in March has long been a hallmark of the tournament. The stunning upsets are still happening in today's college basketball, but they increasingly come from power-conference schools who make huge runs after being under the radar most of the season. It may be a while before true mid-major schools make those type of NCAA runs again.