The head administrators of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) must be beside themselves at this point. The term “mid-major” used to designate teams outside of major conferences, is becoming possibly the most archaic term in sports usage.
It has been a nightmare year for the NCAA, with many accomplishments among mid-major teams, and two crowning achievements: the Boise State University football team going undefeated and continuing to stamp its legitimacy on the nation with extremely impressive wins against many formidable opponents, and Butler advancing through the field of 65 in the NCAA basketball tournament to reach the finals where they lost in heartbreaking fashion to one of the most storied teams of the last few decades. All of this signifies one undeniable thing: times are changing.
The NCAA has never exactly been the most “progressive” association (see President Barack Obama feeling obliged to enforce a new college football playoff system), but recent events demonstrate the playing field has truly been leveled. Ask Miami University’s Julian Mavunga. In high school, he played alongside Butler’s sophomore star, Gordon Hayward, the same guy who just torched Syracuse, Kansas State University and Michigan State University consecutively and nearly made one of the greatest game winning shots ever against Duke University. The 6’9″ forward may not look the part, but few players in the nation have established themselves on as big a stage as Hayward throughout his career. In 2009 he played for USA in the FIBA Under-19 World Championship, averaging 10 points and five rebounds in the tournament.
The NCAA’s public revulsion for mid-majors is perhaps most evident in its intentionally seeding all non-major conference teams against each other in the first round every year, so they eliminate each other. But this year as in the past few, teams from smaller programs have stepped up, with players like Omar Samhan of St. Mary’s and Ryan Wittman of Cornell University further making the mid-major label seem antiquated. Villanova had no answer for Samhan, and Wisconsin none for Wittman, and if you look at Cornell and St. Mary’s season records you would realize their seedings were ludicrous and they clearly were undervalued.
Obviously conferences like Kentucky and Kansas will boast the top tier, future NBA talent, but in college basketball a team that possesses discipline, good chemistry with a bevy of upperclassmen and good leadership can stay even with any team in the nation. Poor Kansas found this out before they even reached the Sweet 16 as they fell to a very experienced, senior-laden Northern Iowa University squad.
An interesting facet of many mid-major teams like St. Mary’s is their international recruiting — more than a third of its team is from Australia, and many of these players are big contributors. In a now global game, where nearly every continent plays basketball competitively, it makes sense colleges start looking abroad.
But in the Big East, ACC and Big Ten, the players are nearly all Americans. Is this xenophobia, or are the stalwarts in power hesitant to change because they do not want to accept the playing field has been leveled? Probably the latter, thinking those in charge of bigger programs are always looking for the next John Wall (Kentucky), rather than for integral team players who are going to lead their team to the championship through hustle and good defense.
Wall and DeMarcus Cousins epitomize the supposed upper elite players who are blessed with extraordinary gifts, but lack seasoning and maturity (which they never gain in college because they are there for one year, then go pro). This is a recurring theme among John Calipari teams, and many other big time programs. Smaller programs, like in farm system baseball, have their players for all four years, grooming and developing them, and allowing for chemistry to build and all of the players to buy into the coach’s system.
So will Butler’s success get tabbed as being a Cinderella story, or will the media finally start to take these kinds of teams more seriously? If you look at the Bulldogs’ resume, this isn’t exactly like George Mason advancing as an 11 seed to the final four. Hard not to be cynical, but next year I think teams like Butler, Gonzaga and St. Mary’s will be discussed a great deal more, even though conferences like the Big East and ACC (entrenched institutions within the NCAA) will still ultimately get the nod over a mid-major if the two are fighting for a final playoff spot.
College sports fans have come to accept that change is very gradual, but in 10 years do not be surprised to see the 2020 version of Jay Bilas or Hubert Davis choose a 27-5 mid-major team to go to their Final Four in the tournament show on ESPN. If these teams show us anything, it is that in a single elimination tournament, seasoning and great coaching can take you a long way.