Mid-Majors and March Madness: The Future of the Tournament

Quick: name your favorite thing about March Madness. Buzzer beaters, come-from-behind wins, coaching drama, or office pool victories are all great choices. But if you answered “a little team nobody’s ever heard of beating a powerhouse,” go cut that net down; you won.

Mid-majors — those Bucknells, Creightons, and Murray States that field men’s college basketball teams in conferences other than the six well-knowns like the SEC and ACC— have been putting the madness in March for years, defying their low seeds and providing America with scores of underdogs to root for and pages of bracket busters to bank on. And it’s a good thing, too: imagine how boring the tournament would be if the higher seed always won. (Luckily the odds of that happening in a given year are 1 in 35,360,000,000.)

2013 has the potential to be the group’s biggest year yet, with mid-majors securing impressive seeds and knocking off perennial Sweet 16 entrants. We’re taking a look back at how mid-majors scrapped their way to being one of the most exciting features of sports.

Tipoff

What we think of as the modern version of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament began in 1985, when the field was expanded from 53 teams to 64. Mid-majors have been making noise in fits and starts ever since, with teams seeded 13th or lower having bested their opponents in the first or second round 47 times (not including 2013).

From 1986 to 1992, not a year went by that a 14-seed did not beat a 3 seed. From 1986 to 1993, only once, in 1990, did multiple low seeds fail to upend a major. (Had No. 16 Murray State been able to beat No. 1 Michigan State in overtime, the streak would have been uninterrupted.) But the next year, the first 15-seed broke through as the Richmond Spiders eliminated No. 2 Syracuse 73-69, something only six other teams seeded that highly have been able to do since. That year, 1991, teams with every seed number except 16 (no 16-seed has ever advanced past the first round) made it to the second round of 32 teams. The only other year that has happened: 2013.

The Year of the MM

So why is 2013 such a watershed moment for schools outside the major leagues? The tournament selection committee seems to have finally recognized that more mid-majors means more heart, more grit, more determination, and most of all, more exciting upsets. This year, five teams from the Mountain West Conference earned tournament slots, a league record, as did five from the Atlantic 10, both besting the SEC’s three bids and the ACC’s four, and tying the Big 12 and the Pac-12. In all, mid-majors received 11 at-large bids.

Not only did mid-majors get a lot of seats at the table this year, they got good seats. The winners of the Patriot League and Ohio Valley Conference earned 11 seeds, compared to the 12s the SEC and Pac-12 winners received. Atlantic 10 members St. Louis, VCU, and Butler nabbed No. 4, No. 5, and No. 6 spots, respectively, and Mountain Westers New Mexico and UNLV a No. 3 and a No. 5. And in a victory for mid-majors everywhere, Gonzaga was named a No. 1 seed, just the fourth time in 14 years a member of their ranks had done so.

And even without good seeds, mid-majors have made their presences known in 2013. No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast University made the Sweet 16, as did No. 13 La Salle. No. 9 Wichita State wasn’t content to stop at even the Elite 8, upsetting No. 2 Ohio State 70-66 to become the first team from the Missouri Valley Conference to make the Final Four since the Larry Bird-led Indiana State team in 1979.

Official Rulings

The first major NCAA decision that benefitted mid-majors came in 1975, when the tournament was expanded from just one team per conference to include “at-large” teams, for a total of 32 bids. (It would be another two years before the phrase “mid-major” came into common parlance, courtesy of Catholic University head coach Jack Kvancz.) For the 1980-1981 season, the NCAA expanded the field again to 48 and enacted the Rating Percentage Index (RPI) as a metric for determining who would receive these at-large spots based on a team’s win percentage, its opponents’ win percentages, and its opponents’ opponents’ win percentages.

Today there isn’t a towel boy on a college basketball team who’s unfamiliar with RPI. Since 1994, the metric by itself has accurately predicted 73% of teams in the tournament to within one spot of their actual seed. Although some maintain the RPI is outdated or ineffectual, the formula has been instrumental in assisting mid-majors’ rise to prominence, particularly since 2004. That year, the RPI was revised to weight road games more favorably, giving mid-majors — who are often forced to play as the away team in games against major conference squads — more credit for ramping up the difficulty level of their schedules.

In 2001, mid-majors got a bit of a pickup with the innovation of the “Opening Round” game, a play-in game for a spot in the tournament that was also considered part of the tournament itself. In 2011, that one game expanded to four games known as the “First Four,” giving smaller programs a bit of national exposure. In 2013, the ratings for these games were up 14% to nearly 4.5 million viewers. This year, little La Salle University parlayed its play-in game win to a berth in the Sweet 16.

Highlight Reel: Breakouts

There are two kinds of great mid-majors. The first kind is the guys who seemingly come out of nowhere to run right over one, two, or maybe even three or four teams in the tournament. The second kind is teams from schools whose football teams you won’t ever see on College Gameday but who, once March rolls around, always seem to be in the mix playing spoiler. They’re the majors of the mid-majors, if you will.

We’ll start with the first group. The latest ballers to find themselves among the ranks of mid-major breakouts are the Eagles of Florida Gulf Coast University, a school that incredibly is only 16 years old, meaning 57 schools have more NCAA tournament appearances to their names than FGCU has years under its belt. But its basketball team has been the hottest story of the games so far.

The team first dispatched no less than No. 2 Georgetown by 10 points and followed that up with an 81-71 rout of No. 7 San Diego State, thus becoming just the seventh 15-seed in the history of the tournament to earn a spot in the round of 32 and the first in the Sweet 16. To say they came out of nowhere belies their 26 regular-season wins, despite a tough non-conference schedule. Nevertheless, just 337 people out of more than 3 million Yahoo! Fantasy Sports Tourney Pick ‘Em participants picked the Eagles to go all the way.

No mention of mid-majors would be complete without the 2005-2006 George Mason Patriots. The Colonial Athletic Association team had never won a NCAA Tournament game when they squared off as the 11-seed against No. 6 Michigan State, the Patriots having snuck in as an at-large bid. A 75-65 win later and they had to face the defending champion North Carolina Tar Heels; they, too, succumbed to the Patriots, 65-60. At that point, college basketball fans really began to wonder just how far this little team could go.

Next came fellow mid-major Wichita State, itself a team fresh off a second-round win against No. 2 Tennessee, just its second tournament win (after its first-round victory over Seton Hall) in a quarter century. GMU didn’t blink, sending them home with a 63-55 drubbing. And then, the ultimate test: the top-seeded UConn Huskies, a team many saw as a safe choice to win the championship. In one of the best games of the decade, little GMU won by 2 in overtime. Although its Cinderella run came to an end in its Final Four matchup with Florida (which went on to win the tournament), the performance is still one of the best tournament runs by a mid-major ever.

Highlight Reel: The Don’t-Call-Us-Mid-Majors

If you went back to a time when college sports fans were unfamiliar with the Gonzaga Bulldogs, Full House would still be on the air. The team’s first March Madness appearance in 1995 was an unceremonious 87-63 beating by No. 3 Maryland. In 1999, they came back and lost to Connecticut in an Elite 8 match; they haven’t missed a tournament since, a streak bested by only Kansas, Duke, and Michigan State. By the end of the 2012, they had won 14 games and earned a reputation as a mid-major in name only. And, of course, the 2013 tournament saw them as a No. 1 seed for the first time in their history.

Another mid-major that’s been giving the lie to its label for years now is Butler University. Since 1997, the team has only missed the tournament six times. It was slow going for the Bulldogs in the late ’90s, as they couldn’t escape the first round. But in 2001, they upset Wake Forest as a No. 10 seed. Two years later they bumped off No. 4 Louisville and punched their ticket to the Sweet 16. In 2007, they edged out another No. 4, Maryland, this time as a 5-seed.

It was in 2010 that Butler arrived. One by one, the Bulldogs ticked off UTEP, Murray State, Syracuse, Kansas State, and Michigan State with hustle and suffocating defense, becoming the fourth team in tournament history to hold all of its first five opponents to under 60 points. The team came within one half-court shot of winning the national championship over Duke. And just to drive home the point that it (and mid-majors in general) were there to stay, Butler followed up its 2010 run with another trip to the title game in 2011, ultimately losing to Connecticut.

Why It’s Time for a Change

  • What’s in a (conference) name?: Are we really to believe that only once Butler and Xavier — schools with eight Sweet Sixteen and two championship appearances between them in just the last 10 years — have left the Atlantic 10 for the new Big East, overnight they’ll have become “major” teams? Besides, conference realignments happen all the time; using them as a metric for assessing a team is like rating a stock based on the weather.
  • The label is vague: Ask five people what or who exactly constitutes a mid-major and you’ll get five different responses. Is it teams from any conference outside the BCS, or from conferences with average athletic budgets under $20 million per school? Should winning teams like Gonzaga be considered somehow inferior to perpetual bottom-dwellers from the Big 12 or SEC? Comedy site The Onion’s 2010 article about “mid-major semi-upper-lower-middle-mid” teams was an apropos description of the silliness of the term.
  • The NCAA doesn’t recognize the term: The folks who oversee the sports of 1,094 member colleges and universities don’t acknowledge a difference between the six BCS conferences and the 25 others, at least not officially. Of course, the BCS teams have gotten unofficial preference from the selection committee for years. Before the 2013 tournament, committee chairman Mike Bobinski felt compelled to tell the press he and his colleagues were not “in any way trying to send any message whatsoever” with the high number of mid-major invitations. We can assume that the unofficial message was that the mid-major label is now irrelevant.
  • It’s an insult: Note the way coaches or players bristle at hearing themselves referred to as a mid-major: they see it as an affront. In 2008, when Yahoo! Sports affiliate Rivals.com tried to name Xavier University basketballer Drew Lavender the “Mid-Major Player of the Week,” the school refused the honor, insisting it wasn’t a mid-major. Xavier administrators were just saying what other teams outside the BCS had been saying for over a decade: don’t write us off as second-tier.

If there is one upside to the mid-major label, it’s that the subtle slight gives young players a chip on their shoulder, a reason to take the court with purpose and passion. And those are the players who continually bring us, the fans, to the edge of our seats and make great things happen in March.