03.22.10

Why “Mid-Major” Is More Accurate Than Ever

Posted in Basketball, College Spurts at 6:27 pm by

xavier coaches

(non-mid-major coach Chris Mack and his four Xavier predecessors, from Cincinnati magazine)

If you’re hoping, as Sports Illustrated‘s Stewart Mandel is, for the term “mid-major” to go out of circulation, perhaps writing a whole column on the subject isn’t the best way to assure that:

No one can identify for sure when exactly the term “mid-major” became a fixture in college basketball, but the 2006 NCAA tournament — the year George Mason reached the Final Four — was clearly its boiling point.

Years from now, here’s hoping we’ll similarly look back at the 2010 Dance as the event that rendered said phrase outdated, unnecessary and (this one’s a long shot) extinct.

We’ve been conditioned to believe in some mystical distinction between schools that belong to the six power football leagues and those that don’t, even when discussing a completely different sport. But if that’s the case, how is it that 11 different conferences will be represented when this year’s Sweet 16 commences Thursday night?

But, um… that’s exactly why these teams are called “mid-majors!” Not just to distinguish them from “major” (i.e. BCS) conferences, but also to distinguish them from the 15 or so conferences – half the automatic field – that enter every March just hoping they don’t have to play on Tuesday, and NEVER make the second round. The key word should be “major,” not “mid.”

And so long as Mandel can also write:

Butler is not going to win the national championship — but it’s fully capable of preventing someone else from doing so.

There’s still a hierarchy.

Does the fact that Cornell can play with anybody mean the entire Ivy League is suddenly as good as the Big 10 (or even the Missouri Valley), especially over 30 games instead of two? Of course not. Now that the world has realized (a season too late, given Patty Mills’ health last year) there are two good West Coast Conference teams, does that mean third-place Portland should have made the field instead of Big East team #8? Maybe so.

I kind of figure if you’re really bothered by the term “mid-major,” that also means you are one. Thing is, I would argue that we need to use the term more, and define it more precisely, based on student body size, attendance and/or athletic budgets, especially with the likely tournament expansion.

Why? Because of how they pick the NCAA selection committee, which is currently made up of “ten members, including six FBS representatives, and four Division I or FCS representatives.”

That means you’ve got 6 people (from UCLA, Ohio State, Kent State, Wake Forest, UConn and the Big 12 conference) representing 120 teams, and 4 people (from Xavier, UC-Riverside, UT-San Antonio and the Big Sky conference) representing 227 teams.

So not only is the process skewed towards power programs, but there is no middle ground – as the athletic director of what is by far (given Gonzaga’s recent early flops and Memphis after Calipari) the most successful non-BCS hoops program, Xavier athletic director Mike Bobinski has a lot more in common with his ACC counterpart – Xavier and Wake Forest just began a 10-year home-and-home, in fact – than someone from the Southland. Only Kent State is really part of the same world as the Horizon or Missouri Valley or the CAA, even if they’re in the other column due to football.

With 96 teams and no NIT, the big battle is going to be between those second or third “mid-major” schools and bigger-conference powers on the bubble. If the selection committee was actually divided into BCS, mid-majors (which would include the Mountain West and Conference USA) and non-majors, we might get a process that is more balanced for every school, no matter what you want to call ‘em.

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