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Return of the Mid-Majors

Return of the Mid-Majors

Return of the Mid-Majors
The Gold Sheet

They never really disappeared...they only seemed to go into hiding over the past couple of seasons. We're talking about the "mid-majors" of college basketball that collectively faded out of focus the past few years, but have reappeared in force in the 2009-10 campaign. And after mostly being ignored by the NCAA Selection Committee for at-large berths in the "Big Dance" lately, it looks as if the mid-majors could be well represented in March Madness when "Selection Sunday" rolls around in mid-March.

That absence of mid-majors in the NCAA Tourney became something of a sore point last March for many college hoop aficionados, including none other than ESPN's Dick Vitale, who got into a well-publicized spat with TV colleague (and ex-"Dookie") Jay Bilas on Selection Sunday over the exclusion of WCC rep Saint Mary's from the 65-team Big Dance field. Of course, Vitale is always going to sympathize with the "little guys" in the sport after swimming against the stream himself in the mid '70s when painstakingly putting the University of Detroit on the college hoop map, but he spoke for a lot of college hoop fans who lamented the apparent collective demise of the mid-majors that had so energized the sport in the early and middle portions of the last decade. And last year was definitely not a banner one for the mid-majors, at least in regard to earning "Big Dance" bids. In particular, the Missouri Valley Conference, which a few years ago had numerous teams in contention for NCAA berths, ended up with no at-large reps for the second year running.
The Mountain West (which positively chafes at being classified as a mid-major) was probably the best of the mid to upper-mid-level leagues last season, but in the end could land no more than one at-large team (BYU). For the second straight year, the WAC was also a one-bid conference. The WCC, a three-bid league in 2008, was a single-bid loop in 2009. For the second straight year, C-USA (dominated again by Memphis) was a one-bid league. The Colonial, also a multi-bid league in recent memory, was again reduced to just its one automatic bid. When the dust settled on last March's Selection Sunday, only four at-large bids (Xavier, Dayton, Butler, and BYU) had been awarded to mid-major conferences, and even that number was inflated due to upsets in the Atlantic 10 and Horizon Tourneys, which added bids to those leagues.

What concerned Vitale and others is that the results reflected the continuation of a pattern wherein the mid-majors seemed to be collectively losing their influence with the Selection Committee. Since 2003, the number of mid-major at-large reps in the Dance has gone from 10 up to 12 in 2004, but then on an unmistakable downward trajectory (9, 8, 6, and 6 the four previous years to 2009). The NCAA at-large field continued to tilt toward the major, BCS schools last March for the fifth straight year, helped also in '09 by more "bid thieves" than usual stealing spots in the Big Dance via conference tourney action, knocking some teams off the bubble in the process. There were an inordinate number (four) of those "thieves" last March, with upsets in the Horizon (Cleveland State), Pac-10 (Southern Cal), Atlantic 10 (Temple), and SEC (Mississippi State) effectively KO'ing the tourney hopes of four other bubblers.

Ah, but this season appears to be different, for a couple of reasons. First, most importantly, there seem to be more dangerous mid-major teams than the past few years. (More on them in a moment.) But there is also undeniable weakness in some of the major, "BCS" conferences that are used to sending four, five, or even more teams "dancing" in recent years. The Pac-10, in particular, is enduring an especially difficult campaign, with few non-conference wins of consequence amid speculation that it might be a one-bid league itself this season. The ACC is still sorting itself out and seeking some definition after unheralded Virginia raced out to an early lead in the standings before getting dumped last weekend at Wake Forest. Indeed, the ACC appears as if it could cannibalize itself this winter, perhaps costing it some of its accustomed Big Dance bids. Kentucky has made a quick recovery under John Calipari, but the SEC (which only landed three NCAA bids last year) still appears to be a couple of notches beneath where it was a few years ago. Weaknesses in those leagues are not only likely to open more NCAA bids for the deeper Big East and Big XII, but provide room for some additional mid-majors to qualify for the Dance in March.

Which mid-majors should we keep our eyes upon as we move into February? Following is a brief rundown of the higher-profile mid-major conferences and the teams to watch in each of the leagues.

ATLANTIC TEN...Into late January, the A-10 ranked as the nation's sixth strongest league and boasted of no fewer than six entries (Temple, Rhode Island, Xavier, Dayton, Richmond, and Charlotte) with Big Dance-worthy RPIs. Temple and Xavier, in particular, will also be helped by the Strength of Schedule, each ranking in the top 15 of that category, although the league's overall stature took a hit when the Owls were blasted by Kansas (remember however, that Fran Dunphy's team had beaten Big Five rival and Top Ten Villanova earlier in the campaign). Note that the league is stronger than usual in the middle and lower-reaches, with only Fordham (which dismissed HC Derrick Whittenburg after the season began) appearing outclassed, and how many upsets occur could thin out the eventual NCAA candidates. Dayton found out last Saturday, dumped 60-59 by a St. Joe's outfit that had been enduring some uncommon struggles this season for HC Phil Martelli.

COLONIAL...Expect the CAA to secure an extra Big Dance bid after an impressive display during non-conference play. Headline-grabbing wins were scored by Old Dominion (at Georgetown) and William & Mary (at both Wake Forest and Maryland), along with some other important triumphs (such as the Tribe again over Richmond, and VCU over Oklahoma). The hottest teams in the loop, however, are Northeastern, which has won its last 11 thru Jan. 26, and Jim Larranaga's familiar contender George Mason, winner of its last 5, and 9 of 11 thru Jan. 26. Also note some high-profile transfers making their mark in the league, including VCU's 6'9 Jamie Skeen (via Wake Forest) and James Madison's 6'10 Denzel Bowles (via Texas A&M).

CONFERENCE USA...It's no longer Memphis and everyone else. The Tigers so overwhelmed the rest of the league the past couple of years that it was hard for anyone else to get noticed, but a more competitive loop is featuring some new blood this season, with UAB, Marshall, Tulsa, and perhaps UTEP in addition to the Tigers all likely to be in the "bubble" discussion into March. Some new faces have really lit up C-USA, namely UAB's transfer from UL-Lafayette, 6'6 jr. Elijah Millsap (brother of Utah Jazz PF Paul Millsap), scoring 17 ppg, and Marshall's 6'11 frosh Hassan Whiteside, whose 5.4 swats pg are challenging Mississippi State's Jarvis Varnado for the nation's shot-blocking crown.

MISSOURI VALLEY...This appears to be a bounce back year in the Valley, which was the mid-major standard bearer a few years ago before slipping the past couple of campaigns. Northern Iowa broke into the national rankings last week before getting dumped at Wichita State; both the Panthers and Shockers have solid at-large profiles and are good bets to be "dancing" in March. Missouri State and Illinois State are also likely to get some "bubble" mention in the next month. And while recent league powers Creighton and Southern Illinois have slipped a bit, both are still capable of making a run through "Arch Madness" (otherwise known as the MVC Tourney) in St. Louis.

MOUNTAIN WEST...Along with the A-10, probably the deepest of ths year's mid-majors (although we know it makes MWC fans cringe to be labeled as such!). BYU is off to its best-ever start, threatening to break into the Top Ten, and is on course for a protected seed in the Big Dance. Regional observers believe the Cougs (who have not had much success in recent NCAAs) are the real deal this time, with more depth and athleticism as well as tremendous shooting (hovering around 50% from the floor). Junior G Jimmer Fredette, shaking off strep throat and mono in recent weeks, might be on course for All-American honors. And with the Pac-10's temporary demise, there figures to be room in the west for two or perhaps even three at-large teams to come out of the MWC. New Mexico owns enough high-profile wins to get noticed by the Selection Committee, as might UNLV and San Diego State. Loop insiders also are alerting us to keep an eye on emerging Utah, which owns a couple of notable non-league wins over Illinois and Michigan that further help the MWC's profile.

WEST COAST...Gonzaga has become a regular in the Big Dance and will be there once more, but we expect the Zags to have some company in March with Saint Mary's, which will likely make up for its near-miss of a year ago and return to the NCAAs for the first time in two years. Which, we assume, will please Dick Vitale! Both the Zags and Gaels have NCAA-worthy RPIs and schedule strength to qualify even if they're upset in the WCC Tourney, to be held at the beautiful Orleans Hotel Arena in Las Vegas.

OTHERS...Butler (Horizon) and Siena (Metro-Atlantic) appear to be in good position to return to the Dance, with their leagues likely to get multiple bids if either are upset in their conference tourneys. The WAC's Utah State and La Tech are on the periphery of the "bubble" and could move into more serious at-large discussion as February progresses. And is there a chance Cornell and Harvard could make the Ivy a multi-bid league in March? Stay tuned.

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