It has become an annual occasion during NCAA Tournament selection week: The mid-major lament.
Give the little guy a break. The mid-majors are getting screwed. It’s all stacked against them.
And, what has become the most vacant two-word phrase to enter the college basketball lexicon since “eye test” and “last 10” faded from favor: “I’d rather.”
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Those two words are the essence of the mid-major lament. “I’d rather” is condensed from what you already know: “I’d rather see a team like Belmont in the tournament than a mediocre power-conference team.”
It’s curious anyone involved in the sport would believe this is a proper course for the NCAA Tournament selection committee to follow, as though it were simply choosing a different flavor of ice cream because vanilla is tired. “I’d rather have Black Raspberry Chip.”
I happen to know one of the perks of serving on the NCAA Men’s Basketball Committee is the ice cream breaks, but that’s not really what those 10 people are up to during their hours of deliberation in selecting the NCAA Tournament’s 36 at-large teams. They’re trying to establish which are the most qualified teams — not the most qualified teams you’re not tired of seeing.
“Our charge is to take the best 36 teams, at-large teams,” selection chair Bernard Muir, the athletic director at Stanford, said on a teleconference on Wednesday. “We’re going to look at a number of resumes coming from both the Power 5 conferences and the mid-majors. There was a lot of good basketball that continues to be played.”
The complaints in recent seasons have centered around the larger percentage of at-large bids coming from high-major conferences. In 2018, the Power 5 and Big East consumed 86 percent of at-large bids, compared to 69 percent in the year 2000. To understand that increase, you first must realize the power leagues grew in that period. At the start of the century, 67 basketball teams played in what were then called the Automatic Qualifying conferences of college football’s BCS era. Those same leagues now have 75 members, a 12 percent increase.
Additionally, it’s important to recognize college basketball fundamentally changed in that period. In 1998-99, Wally Szczerbiak was a consensus second-team All-American with the Miami RedHawks. He turned down offers from Georgia Tech and St. John’s to join Herb Sendek and play all four years in southwestern Ohio. That wouldn’t happen now. Top talents playing at mid-majors by choice is a practice as extinct as the two-hand set shot.
We detailed this phenomenon a year ago. Whereas 67 percent of top 100 prospects in 1998 chose to sign with teams from the top six conferences, that figure increased to 95 percent by 2017. The high major leagues have more of the top players and top coaches. It stands to reason it would have more of the best teams.
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This is not to say a player such as Murray State’s Ja Morant — a Sporting News second-team All-American in 2018-19 — might not be overlooked and misevaluated. It is rare, though. Of last year’s 27 first-round picks to come from college basketball, 89 percent played in top-six conferences. In 2000, it was 74 percent.
It’s also not to say teams without such players can’t coalesce into an overwhelming force capable of remarkable achievements, such as an undefeated conference record or victories over significant programs from wealthier conferences. When such teams appear and are not acknowledged, the committee deserves to be ripped.
A prime example of this occurred ahead of the 2015 tournament, after Murray State compiled a perfect record in the Ohio Valley regular season (not losing a game between Nov. 30 and the final of the OVC Tournament, when the Racers fell to Belmont by a point on a buzzer-beater). They were 27-5 on Selection Sunday and were left home, told their schedule was too weak to justify inclusion.
This was, as we say on Twitter, a bad take.
When that sort of dominance occurs, the committee ought to be in the business of rewarding such a team, even if it competes in what traditionally is known as a “one-bid league.” This is a basketball competition, not a scheduling competition. However, there has been no such team thrown into the 2019 at-large pool to date.
The only team fitting this description that completed its conference tournament was Mike Young’s Wofford team, which went 18-0 in the Southern Conference and won the league’s automatic bid. Buffalo (28-3) is another such team and, even if it loses in the Mid-American Conference Tournament, should certainly be invited. If it’s not, that will be an outrage.
But the programs currently backed by major campaigns, so to speak, did not demonstrate that sort of power. Belmont tied for the OVC regular season title with Murray State with 16-2 records, one game ahead of Jacksonville State. The Bruins are 25-5 against Division I opponents, with two of those wins coming against Quadrant 1 competition. They won a road game against UCLA. However, they were 1-3 in games against the teams that wound up seeded second and third in the OVC tournament.
Lipscomb likewise has gained support because of its high placement in the NCAA’s NET rankings. The Bisons are 48th, but they are only 23-7 against Division I opponents. Their most significant nonconference win was against TCU. But they lost two of three games to auto-bid winner Liberty, including the Atlantic Sun championship game on their own court. They also lost to a sub-.500 Florida Gulf Coast squad and fell twice to Belmont, which means they should be in line behind the Bruins.
If either or both of those teams were fortunate to receive bids, it would be no calamity (except on those campuses whose bubble-bound basketball teams are not chosen). They’re good teams. But the case against them is at least as strong as the case in favor.
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The “little guy” does not need a break. The little guy already gets one. There are 32 automatic qualification spots available in the NCAA Tournament. There is one each for the Power 5 leagues, another for the Big East and one for the American, a traditional multi-bid league. So that means 37 percent of the field already is granted to mid- and low-major programs in the form of automatic bids, even though it is obvious they don’t have a third of the best teams or a third of the best players.
This is as it should be. Gaining access to the championship should be a default position for Division I members, and it is for every sport the NCAA sponsors. The absence of that access is one of the colossal weaknesses of the College Football Playoff. The mid-majors and low-majors add character to the tournament that helps make it such an inviting television draw and helps make it worth about $1 billion annually.
Beyond that, what the “little guy” should receive is what he deserves. In the case of 2015 Murray State, that didn’t happen. If Buffalo somehow were excluded in 2019, that would be a problem. But not because “I’d rather” see the Bulls in the field than a team that finished in the middle of a power league.
The Bulls might not need to be chosen. They can win their way into the field. If they fail, though, remember they won’t need charity. They’ll need the at-large bid they’ve earned.
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