For all their success, mid-majors still face an uphill NCAA climb

If you're from the Colonial, you'd better win the Colonial tournament. (AJC photo by Curtis Compton)

If you're based in the CAA, you'd better win the CAA tournament. (AJC photo by Curtis Compton)

Many of the conference tournaments that matter will have ended before the ACC tips off its annual convocation next week at Philips Arena, and here’s how we distinguish between league tournaments that do and don’t matter: Almost nobody cries real tears after losing a final in one of the big leagues. That’s because teams in the BCS Six already know their in-or-out NCAA fate.

Yes, there are exceptions, Georgia winning the 2008 SEC tournament and heading to the Big Dance being the most glaring. But conference tournaments in the big leagues are, as a rule, window dressing. For proof, we turn again to Georgia. It was believed that the Bulldogs’ Round 2 game against Alabama at the Dome last March was an in-or-out game. Nope. Georgia lost and made the NCAA field as a No. 9 seed. Alabama won and went to the NIT.

Turning to this year: Festivities in the Colonial Athletic Association — that’s Georgia State’s league — begin Friday in Richmond. Doings in the Atlantic Sun — that’s Mercer’s league — commence Wednesday in Macon. The winner of each makes the field of 68. There’s a chance not one of the losers will.

Such is the peril of being a mid-major, even one with a bit of a pedigree. In 2002 Georgia State was 20-10 and had lost the A-Sun championship game by a skinny point when a final shot didn’t fall, and yet Lefty Driesell, the Panthers’ coach, was reduced to begging. “You’ve got to help me get in this tournament,” he implored this correspondent, but we both knew there was no chance. No matter that GSU had actually made the NCAA field the year before and upset Wisconsin once there. The A-Sun was seen as a one-bid league.

Ten years later, it still might be. If Belmont, which is 24-7 and went 16-2 in conference play, loses the final to Mercer by one point on Mercer’s floor — the Bruins just won by a point at Mercer on Saturday — Belmont could miss the NCAA. This is the same Belmont that came within a point of Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium in November, and that’s also the lot of a mid-major: If you want to beat somebody big during the regular season, you have to do it on the road.

VCU proved last March what a plucky middleweight could do on neutral courts. The Rams — whose NCAA invitation was derided by the crew on ESPN, Jay Bilas chief among the detractors — won five games in the Big Dance, beating Southern Cal, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas. VCU of the CAA beat representatives from five of the six BCS leagues and was undone only by Butler, itself a mid-major. And yet ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has VCU’s conference as a one-bid league in 2012.

After Old Dominion won in overtime at Georgia State last week, Monarchs coach Blaine Taylor was asked how a conference that sent three teams — ODU, VCU and George Mason — to the 2011 Big Dance could have seen its stock fall. He noted that the league’s upper tier had sufferedearly losses for varying reasons: Drexel because of injuries, Mason because it was adjusting to new coach Paul Hewitt, ODU itself because it dared to schedule Kentucky and Missouri. Then he said:

“The difference between a BCS league and a mid-major is that we never get past those losses. It’s like you’re sitting in church and the collection plate comes by — teams from the bigger conferences can put a little more money in and buy more forgiveness.”

Case in point: Texas. The Longhorns are 18-11, having gone 8-8 in Big 12 play and 0-5 against the league’s three best teams. Yet Lunardi’s projections have Texas in and VCU, which is 23-8 and finished second to Drexel in the CAA, out. Does anyone seriously doubt that VCU couldn’t beat Texas on a neutral floor? No, but the NCAA committee goes by RPI, which is largely a function of how your opponents have fared, and if you’re a mid-major a majority of your opponents will by definition have played mid-major schedules.

(Speaking of money in the collection plate: Texas has its own TV network; at last check, VCU does not.)

Were I king of the world, I’d cap the number of at-large bids for teams from the six BCS leagues at 25 and leave a dozen to the mid-majors. (In Lunardi’s latest bracket, the split is 29 to 8.) If the past few seasons have taught us anything, it’s that the likes of VCU and Butler and George Mason and Northern Iowa and Davidson can, if given a chance, stand with anyone. Were I king of the world, I’d make it my mission to give them that chance.

By Mark Bradley

65 comments Add your comment

crose714

February 27th, 2012
12:23 pm

First! A Monday Night Daytona 500! Basketball, not tonight!

Rickster

February 27th, 2012
12:24 pm

Rickster

February 27th, 2012
12:25 pm

Yes!!! Two out of the last three!

Rickster

February 27th, 2012
12:26 pm

If Mark were king of the world… I’m glad he’d limit his actions to the NCAA tournament. :-)

Mark Bradley

February 27th, 2012
12:27 pm

Kudos, crose714.

crose714

February 27th, 2012
12:29 pm

Sorry Rickster… Squeaked by, but an honor to be in your company!

Rickster

February 27th, 2012
12:30 pm

Dang. When I hit refresh… crose714 wasn’t there.

Rickster

February 27th, 2012
12:31 pm

To borrow a long-used sports phrase… “We wuz robbed!”

Mark Bradley

February 27th, 2012
12:38 pm

crose714 was caught in the spam filter. I know not why.

But he gets double kudos for being magnanimous.

Andy

February 27th, 2012
12:44 pm

Hail to the king!

Frank Lane

February 27th, 2012
12:48 pm

bigclaude

February 27th, 2012
12:49 pm

Come on Mark!!. Anybody who brings up Nascar on a College Basketball article should not be Kudoed!!

DetroitBraves

February 27th, 2012
12:54 pm

If you cap the majors at 25 you’re only going to have basically 4, on average, from each conference. If you don’t artificially limit a conference to 4 you’ll get a year like this where the Big Ten can justify 6 being taken at the expense of another conference. So say that happens and the ACC gets 2. I’m not saying I don’t like your idea. Just saying you better really be king if you want something like that to happen.

not so fast, big claude...

February 27th, 2012
12:55 pm

ever hear of the state of north carolina?
they might say you are banned for that comment.

heartofdarkness

February 27th, 2012
12:59 pm

How often do the dogs of the multi-bid conferences make a big run in the tournament? That last team in is often a squad that never jelled or failed to adjust to injuries to key players. From a sporting perspective, you would much rather see teams who have gained confidence and trust throughout the season and have momentum coming into the tournament. A team with a one point loss in the conference tournament has a different mind set than a team which loses a first or second round game by 20.
Of course, if you’re holding complimentary corporate ducats, you probably want the team with the steamiest cheerleaders.

DetroitBraves

February 27th, 2012
12:59 pm

By the way, love Lunardi’s work. And isn’t it true that his projected field is how he believes the committee will behave (as well as the projected automatic qualifiers) rather than his own personal opinions on who may or may not be deserving? There is probably considerable overlap but there is a distinction as well.

GTBob

February 27th, 2012
1:00 pm

I don’t like the idea of capping the bids for major conferences. That can lead to a situation where a very undeserving mid major gets in over a deserving team in a tough conference. To me that is much worse then a possibly deserving mid major being left out. I do think the mid majors should be given a little more respect though in the evaluation process.

Shug

February 27th, 2012
1:03 pm

The so-called Big Dance is a power conference tournament. Any non-power conference team is supposed to be grateful for an invitation.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the 2d best team in any conference is better than the 8th best team from any other conference.

Paul in NH

February 27th, 2012
1:05 pm

Who knew that people in the state of North Carolina were not concerned about basketball.

Paul in NH

February 27th, 2012
1:10 pm

Mark – When you use the term “mid-major” you imply that all of the leagues outside the big 6 CFB leagues are at the same level. There can be a big difference between the mid-major leagues. Some of them have a number of good teams. I’d put the A-10 up against the PAC 12 any day – heck, lately you could put them up against the ACC or the SEC.

Ran Off Scott

February 27th, 2012
1:10 pm

GTBob, why is a deserving big conference team getting snubbed worse than a deserving mid-conference team getting snubbed?

Panthersville.com

February 27th, 2012
1:13 pm

Maybe a final four appearance should guarantee your conference two bids the following year?

Mark Bradley

February 27th, 2012
1:13 pm

Capping the majors at 25 at-large bids, plus the six automatic bids they’d earn, would leave an an average of six bids for the big six.

crose714

February 27th, 2012
1:14 pm

Big Claude makes a valid point. I apologize. It was a college hoops article and I brought in NASCAR. Tonight is just going to be very special and I got overly excited. My bad Big Claude!

Mark Bradley

February 27th, 2012
1:16 pm

And I’d agree that not all mid-majors are created equal. The Atlantic 10, the Mountain West and Conference USA are kind of major mid-majors.

Paul in NH

February 27th, 2012
1:19 pm

Mark – Check your math. It means an average of 5 for the big six (which is 3 more than the PAC 12 deserves – not too mention 1 a piece for the ACC and SEC)

bigclaude

February 27th, 2012
1:20 pm

No problem Crose. I’m still pouting because football season is over and I needed someone to lash out at.

Mark Bradley

February 27th, 2012
1:25 pm

Whoops. Average of five.

We were never good at cypherin’ in Ky.

George Mason

February 27th, 2012
1:31 pm

If you were king of the world would you still confuse ACC and CAA in your articles? Two different times you put ACC when you meant CAA. Even in an article that is trying to stick up for the little guys, you continue to insult them.

lurker

February 27th, 2012
1:45 pm

If Murray State does not win the OVC tournament, will they not get in?

DetroitBraves

February 27th, 2012
1:50 pm

You’re right, I forgot to add in the automatic qualifiers. Still, the BCS conferences will be wanting a word with King Mark.

UGADawg83

February 27th, 2012
2:03 pm

Is ther any such thing as a low-major?

Mark Bradley

February 27th, 2012
2:11 pm

There are lower-tiered mid-majors. Sure.

Mark Bradley

February 27th, 2012
2:14 pm

And Murray State would be an intriguing case if if loses in the Ohio Valley tournament. Its RPI is 30, which should be good enough. But, as Lunardi notes, Missouri State didn’t make it with an RPI of 21 back in 2006.

KSU Alum

February 27th, 2012
2:33 pm

Not knocking you, Mark, but it would be nice if the AJC Sports department remembered that we have another mid-major in this state – in fact, still the only Georgia school to win a Men’s Basketball National Championship – Kennesaw State. Yeah, I know they’ve had a rough season this year, but it really irks me that you guys don’t even bother to cover them. It’s the 3rd largest school in the state and producing thousands of new graduates every year. Perhaps the AJC would like to get a few as subscribers? Give us some more coverage, please!

phil

February 27th, 2012
2:39 pm

Kennesaw State should make the field of 68 easily….

It would be unjust to leave em out.

phil

February 27th, 2012
2:41 pm

Firing Tony Engle….

How’s that working out for you, Kennesaw?

JSS

February 27th, 2012
2:59 pm

No one to blame for the disrespectful tone regarding the nature of the “Mid-Majors” but the media and incessant drumbeat of inferiority heaped upon them! Every time I see the bottom of the SEC and ACC, I just shake my head… Hey, that is “Big-Time” basketball! SMDH!

Rickster

February 27th, 2012
3:08 pm

You realize. Mark… that your column could be used by the NCAA to justify their nefarious plan to expand the field to 128 teams. I can see the head honcho of the NCAA saying:

“This way… more teams that deserve a chance… but who through no fault of their own do not play in one of the major conferences.. get the opportunity to play in one of the premier sporting events on the face of the earth. Even Mark Bradley, the esteemed blogger from the AJC agrees that these teams deserve a chance.”

Mark Bradley

February 27th, 2012
3:09 pm

I don’t think the tournament needs to be expanded. But I do believe too many middling teams from big conferences get in.

Mark Bradley

February 27th, 2012
3:10 pm

Rickster

February 27th, 2012
3:19 pm

I agree… there’s no need to expand to 128. The most I could go for would be one play-in game per regional. If my math is correct.. that would allow three more teams a chance to play, bringing the current 65 to 68.

lurker

February 27th, 2012
3:33 pm

There is a VERY large difference in the argument about bubble teams in/out and the BCS championship game. Any team that does not make the NCAA tournament could have done something to get in.

If Murray does not make it, but NC State does you can argue all day about which team should have made it. However, if Murray State does not make it, they could have won their conference to get in. Until the conference tournaments begin, every team in the country has a chance(albeit small for many) to get in.

With the BCS, there is a small list of schools that have ANY chance of making the championship game. I would say less than 30 at the beginning of the year. If you are not in that list before the season even begins, you have no shot. If the perennial “top 10″ out of conference teams you scheduled six or seven years ago fall to mediocre teams by this season, you have no shot.

LawDawg

February 27th, 2012
4:24 pm

MB, I love ya, bu did you resign your full-time job for a part-time position at AJC? I know this is the slowest time of the year for sports, but geez, this is, what, your 5th story in 10 days (possibly exaggerated)?

GTBob

February 27th, 2012
4:43 pm

GTBob, why is a deserving big conference team getting snubbed worse than a deserving mid-conference team getting snubbed?

That wasn’t really what I was saying. I just think if you have a solid Big East team who is on the bubble and they get left out for a 2nd or third place team from a terrible conference, just because there is a limit on the major conference bids then that is worse then the current case of Mid Majors getting snubbed.

Ted M

February 27th, 2012
4:56 pm

Mark – If you were “King of the World” I would ask for a 16 team playoff in NCAA football.

If you refused I’d have to orchestrate an overthrow of your Reign.

Mark Bradley

February 27th, 2012
5:15 pm

Actually, if I were king of the world, I wouldn’t worry about sports.

PhilO

February 27th, 2012
5:44 pm

Sounds right. CAA has 4 teams in top 100 rpi (kenpom.com) which is not bad. Just not high enough (top at 46 & 47) normally for at large bids. CAA is still a very good conference but not good enough for multiple bids THIS year.

I've said all along...

February 27th, 2012
5:46 pm

there needs to be a mid major “power” conference. mid’s have made plenty of noise over the past several tourneys to start getting some love. Murray, WSU, Creighton and a few others have shown they can play. Butler got hot the last two years and almost one the thing. there is nothing “major” about the bottom halves of these so-called power conferences.

I've said all along...

February 27th, 2012
5:47 pm

that’s “won” the thing…