The college basketball system is tilted to teams in the six BCS conferences. Teams in the other 25, or at least those which might harbor dreams of being competitive with the schools in the first six, have been forced to choose between playing home games and playing good games. In some cases, even a choice is unavailable to them, as schools in the Missouri Valley Conference have discovered in the past few seasons.
Whatever the justifications-and the most common one, as in football, is that the basketball programs at the big schools have to bring in money to support the entire athletic program-the end result is a playing field that doesn't give enough schools opportunities for quality wins. Because of this, the arguments for the last few spots in the NCAA tournament often come down to BCS schools with middling records but some quality wins over good teams who are forced to play them at home, and non-BCS schools with better records but a distinct lack of visits from highly-ranked teams.
That won't be the case this year. This year, in part because of a lack of opportunity, in part because of a lack of converting the few opportunities that existed, non-BCS schools will be virtually absent from the at-large discussion. BCS conferences at one point seemed to have a chance to sweep all 34 slots; that is unlikely now, but taking at least 30 seems within reach should Butler, Gonzaga and Davidson win their conference tournaments.
Let's talk about definitions for a minute. The term "mid-major" is a catchall that has inspired a backlash, but it has meaning. I use it to describe conferences outside of the traditional top ten that have some history of getting at-large bids, and which attempt to compete with the conferences above them. It includes the Missouri Valley, the Horizon League, the Colonial, the WCC, the Sun Belt, MAC, MAAC and Big West. The MAC is barely hanging on here-their last at-large bid was in 1999-and the MAAC and Big West are marginal calls, helped by conference schools hosting and playing in some of the ESPN events each fall, enhancing their stature and scheduling. Conferences outside this group, led by the Southern and the America East, are minor conferences: they almost never get at-large bids or seeds above 12, save when a single great program emerges (c.f., Davidson, Vermont) briefly.
There are four conferences between the BCS schools and the mid-majors that I would simply call "majors." Conference USA, the Mountain West, the Atlantic 10 and the WAC all are traditional multi-bid leagues that sometimes produce Final Four contenders. Their scheduling situation tends to be better than that of the mid-majors-they can get occasional home games against good teams-but they're clearly not on par with the BCS leagues. Save for the WAC, they stay out of BracketBusters, a mid-major event. In evaluating tournament teams, these conferences are not considered mid-majors. In any given year, these conferences may not necessarily rank in the top ten, but over time, they've separated themselves from the field.
The Missouri Valley is still a mid-major, even though it's outplayed the WAC over the past few seasons. It's a thin line, but based on the histories involved, that's where I'll draw it. The Valley's inability to sustain its 2005-07 success, in fact, is one big reason for the current situation-they're likely to send just one team to the tournament for a second straight season, thanks to a dearth of wins. The conference has a total of two RPI top-50 wins, and it has no wins against BCS schools in the RPI top 100. (Thanks to Jerry Palm's CollegeRPI.com for all of the data in this piece.)
Consider the latest Bracketology by the expertly-coiffed Joe Lunardi. Joe is aware of the systemic advantages BCS schools have and has written about this in the past. He doesn't favor mid-majors in his bracket analysis, but it is fair to say that he gives them a more fair shake than many other college basketball analysts do. Despite that, the 34 at-large bids in today's bracket go to 30 BCS schools and four majors. There are no mid-majors in Joe's bracket save for conference leaders given automatic bids. Beyond that, of the eight schools Joe lists as just missing the tournament, there are no mid-majors: six BCS schools and two majors (Temple and New Mexico).
He's absolutely right. For all of the arguing I've done over the past decade, mostly outside the public eye, there's no case to be made for mid-majors this season. Certainly Butler will be in the tournament barring a collapse, and both Gonzaga and Davidson are safe barring late-season collapses even should either lose in their conference tournaments. That's it. That's the list. The bubble this year simply won't offer the kinds of arguments-Illinois State versus Baylor, VCU versus Villanova-that other seasons have offered. Teams outside the top ten conferences failed to make their case in nonconference play, and with just a couple of possible long-shot exceptions, they aren't making it in conference play.
Opportunity is part of the problem. On the whole, the MVC got seven home games against top-ten conferences, or less than one per team. They got three against BCS schools, two of which are mandated by the state of Iowa, which requires that Iowa State, Iowa, Drake and Northern Iowa play each other each year. Even getting out of town hasn't been that helpful: the conference played just 16 (2-14) games against RPI top-50 competition, just 31 against the top 100 (10-21). It's hard to build a resume like that, not when middling BCS schools like Boston College, Arizona and Notre Dame get multiple chances every year to save their seasons by having good teams come to their gyms, whether they want to or not.
It's like that for other conferences as well, although the Valley's aggressive stance on scheduling-the conference doesn't want its teams playing too many road games or taking guarantee games-may make it stand out. The Horizon League got three visits from BCS schools and three from majors. The Colonial also had three visits from BCS schools and a whopping eight-mostly CUSA and Atlantic 10-from majors. The numbers for the rest of the mid-majors are similar. The changes to the RPI formula, which were supposed to encourage teams to play more road games, have chased a few teams out of their homes but has done little to make life better for the mids. They simply can't get quality home games, and they're starting to lose quality road dates as well.
The expansion of Division I to 344 schools has been a factor. BCS schools, and even the top majors, can fill their schedules and their coffers with home games against an ever-growing pool of teams that have no chance to stay on the court with the local five. Dates that might have gone to Akron or Indiana State or Hofstra now go to Texas-Pan American and Longwood and Houston Baptist. The rescinding of the two-in-four rule-a good decision in itself-has led to a proliferation of tournaments that feature either six BCS schools and two tokens, or non-tournaments in which four BCS schools play two awful teams-Syracuse hosted LeMoyne in one of these-and advance to a semifinal regardless of whether they win or lose. No credible program is going to play in a "tournament" where winning doesn't get them advancement. In either case, BCS schools are filling their schedules without looking to the mid-majors.
Until the NCAA steps in, as the Iowa State Legislature has, and mandates some efforts at scheduling equality, this situation isn't going to improve. It will be harder and harder for the mid-majors, and eventually, the majors, to get opportunities for quality wins, making it harder for them to build a tournament resume and get into the dance, leaving spots for BCS schools who already operate at an advantage. The end result will be a less interesting tournament for everyone involved, and perhaps the first chinks in the armor of the 40-year juggernaut that has been the NCAA tournament. You can't sell David vs. Goliath by locking David out of the arena.
In 2008-09, though, you have to place blame on the teams. Mid-majors by and large spit the bit when given chances on neutral courts and on the road. As mentioned, the Valley failed: 2-14 against the RPI top 50, with the wins over Dayton (Creighton, at home) and Siena (Wichita State, neutral). Wins over Dayton, New Mexico and St. Joseph's are the conference's entire non-conference resume; not a team's-the entire conference's. The Horizon won at Xavier (Butler), Syracuse (Cleveland State) and against UAB (Butler). The MAAC went 0-15 against the RPI top 50 and has no wins against tournament teams unless St. Joseph's makes a run. The Colonial was 0-12 against the top 50, and its best wins are over Providence, New Mexico and St. Joseph's. Gonzaga's wins over Tennessee, Maryland and Providence hold up the West Coast. The Sun Belt was 1-21 against the top 50 (Western Kentucky beat Louisville), 2-39 against the top 100.
So it's not that Joe Lunardi has suddenly begun channeling Bily Packer and Jay Bilas. It's that the performance of mid-major teams hasn't been good enough to get them in the discussion. Cincinnati, Michigan and Kansas State all have chances to be in the tournament this year because they have resumes that could make them one of the top 34 at-large candidates, and if those resumes seem weak, well, that gives you an idea of how weak the mid-majors are this year.
Just to fill in the details, here are the top mid-major schools this season who will be vying for tournament bids, and a look at their cases for inclusion in the tournament. Gonzaga, Butler and Davidson are, as mentioned, in the tournament barring collapses. (There's a sidebar discussion about separating programs from their conferences-Gonzaga, at least, operates at a level above its league-that's more an offseason topic.)
Siena (20-6, 14-1, RPI 31): Siena has done about as much as any mid-major to show that it's not a tournament team by going 0-4 against the four tournament teams it played, and by not being terribly competitive in any of them save a loss at Kansas. Their RPI is helped by avoiding poison-their worst NC game is at Holy Cross (201)-and bad losses: 20-2 against RPI 51 and higher. The BracketBuster matchup with Northern Iowa won't be terribly informative-they needed a shot at Butler or Davidson. If there's going to be a big mid-major debate this year, it will be over a 26-7 Siena team that loses to Niagara in the MAAC final and is up against some 18-13 (8-11) BCS school.
Utah State (23-2, 12-1, RPI 33): Yes, they're a WAC school, but I'll cheat and include them here. They have Siena's resume, with lesser quality wins but a victory at home over Utah. Their hook-a long winning streak-was lost in Boise over the weekend. The Aggies absolutely have to win at St. Mary's this weekend to have any case for an at-large bid, because there aren't even quality wins on their resume otherwise. (At that, it will be pointed out that they will have beaten a Patrick Mills-free Gaels squad.)
Creighton (21-6, 11-4, RPI 56): A home loss to Northern Iowa on January 6 may be what kills them; with a win in that game they'd have the outright lead in the Valley, and the Valley champ has gone to the tournament in every season since at least 1993. (That's as far back as the data I have goes.) A win over Dayton is their non-conference pop, and beating George Mason this weekend won't move the needle. Creighton was able to play just two games against BCS schools this year, one of which is an in-state rivalry. That's a problem. If they can win the Valley outright-no easy task to make up two games with three to play, even with a better schedule than UNI-then we can talk. Creighton is the only Valley team with any shot at an at-large bid.
George Mason (17-8, 10-5, RPI 57): The Colonial needed one of its three top teams to separate from the pack. Instead, they've beaten each other up, while also falling to other teams in what has become a pretty deep conference. Their best NC win is at Vermont. Making the Final Four's value? Mason did not play a single game against a BCS school this season, and just two against majors (@ East Carolina, vs. Tulane). With no top-50 wins, beating Creighton this weekend is mandatory, but probably not enough.
Illinois State (21-5, 10-5, RPI 58): Even by Valley standards, the Redbirds played a poor non-conference schedule, taking on just one team in a top-ten conference (SMU) and picking up just one RPI Top 100 win (at Wright State, a BracketBusters return game). So their 11-0 record when conference play began was as soft as it could be. Even a Valley regular-season title-they play UNI and Creighton in the season's last week-wouldn't be enough.
St. Mary's (18-5, 7-4, RPI 60): This year's Dayton, with Mills playing the role of Chris Wright. St. Mary's was 16-1 and leading Gonzaga when Mills broke his thumb. They're 2-4 since, with bad losses to Portland and Santa Clara. That the West Coast wraps up early could kill them, as unless the committee gets to see them again with Mills on the floor, it will be hard to put them in the tournament. Even at that, they'll need to finish in second in the conference and avoid more RPI-killing losses. The remaining schedule is soft, save for Saturday's BracketBuster against Utah State.
That's pretty much it. VCU could win the Colonial outright, but they have some terrible losses and just one decent NC win (New Mexico). Winning at Nevada this week won't help them at all. Miami of Ohio is like Siena, with five losses to RPI top-50 teams making the case against them. Northeastern beat Providence, but needs an outright Colonial title to make that mean anything. Northern Iowa is in the driver's seat in the Valley…with a sub-80 RPI and one NC win in the top 200 (Auburn). They have no chance.
This year, mid-majors haven't played well enough. This year and in other years, though, the lack of opportunities is setting the stage for these discussion, and the opportunities are growing fewer. When the two combine, you get 34 at-large bids going to just eight conferences, 30 of those to just six, and a much different kind of March.
Joe Sheehan is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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