Jim Larranaga’s Miami (FL) Hurricanes are one of the biggest surprises in a year full of them in Division I men’s basketball. They currently sit at 20-3 overall, are leading the ACC with a perfect 11-0 record in conference play, and are ranked higher in the polls than at any point in team history. They’re a legitimate championship contender, all but guaranteed to make the NCAA tournament for just the third time this century.
Meanwhile, just two spots behind them in the AP poll, Gonzaga is in the midst of another fantastic year, seeking their fifteenth consecutive appearance in the tournament. They’ve won at least one game in twelve of those postseason berths, have had multiple NBA draft picks on their roster, and have become one of the most consistently winning programs in the country.
So which of these teams is the mid-major? By every traditional metric, the Hurricanes are a major program because they’re in the ACC (and, from 1991-2004, the Big East), while the Bulldogs are a mid-major playing out of the West Coast Conference. The way these definitions are demarcated in the polls and in sports journalism cause teams like Gonzaga to be underrated, and for conferences like the Missouri Valley and Mountain West (which currently sports the highest conference RPI in the country) to be underrepresented come tournament time.
One of the many ironies of this system is that Larranaga, the man behind the Hurricanes’ success, was a key factor in proving that “mid-major” is one of the biggest misnomers in sports. In 2006, he coached George Mason to a berth in the final four, which paved the way for similar runs by teams like Butler and Virginia Commonwealth in subsequent years. Though the tournament has traditionally seen a large number of first-round upsets, deep runs for teams outside of the major conferences have become commonplace.
So why are some schools and conferences still considered on a lower tier? A big part of it is money. In basketball, only one of the twenty most-valuable programs is from a non-major conference (Xavier). Meanwhile, teams in the Big Ten and Pac-12 benefit from huge athletic departments that get boosted by having large football programs and revenue from both major and conference-owned television networks. Teams in smaller conferences can only gain national exposure by playing the bigger programs (which many major teams are still hesitant to do) or by making noise in the tournament.
Another factor is strength of schedule. Just by being in a major conference, a team is guaranteed to play a much higher level of competition than a team in a small conference. Even a middle-of-the-pack team in the Big Ten is given the benefit of the doubt over a second- or third-place team in the Mountain West, even if that mid-major finished with a much better overall record. That has started to change in recent years, though, with more at-large bids being given to mid-majors, like last year’s Iona team getting in over Washington, for example. As conferences like the Mountain West and Atlantic-10 start to climb up the RPI rankings, the competition within smaller conferences becomes comparable to that of the larger ones.
It’s also become clear that the NBA’s requirement for players to spend at least one year in college before getting drafted has helped several mid-majors. Yes, there are extremely successful programs like Kentucky and Duke almost exclusively recruit players that will play only one or two years before declaring for the draft, but this leaves mid-majors with the opportunity to snatch up players who are in it for a longer haul. The big underdog runs, like those of Butler, VCU, and George Mason, were achieved by teams that started mostly upperclassmen who had spent years playing together. Coaches like Brad Stevens (Butler) and Shaka Smart (VCU) have become selling points to recruits as well, offering a chance for players to become key parts of programs that have been built from the ground up with innovative playing styles.
Despite the ways in which the Division I playing field has been leveled, these tiers of competition still exist in the minds of many analysts and journalists. No “mid-major” team has won a championship in the modern basketball era, and until that happens many will still see some teams as the have and others as the have-nots. But when March Madness rolls around, don’t be surprised to see some of those have-nots rising to the occasion and challenging common knowledge yet again.