Brian Hamilton: ‘Mid-majors’ like Butler deserve major NCAA respect
What in the name of George Mason is going on here?
At first, they were just happy to be here.
Five “mid-majors” busting up brackets across the country in making an appearance among the NCAA’s Sweet 16 finalists.
And now, it appears they’re ready to plot a course for Indianapolis.
But before you label Butler as just another Cinderella story that makes March Madness fans all warm and fuzzy, let’s take a closer look at what’s really going on in the landscape of college basketball.
It’s true that typically there is at least one Cinderella story that catches our attention each March:
Eleventh-seed Loyola Marymount, inspired by the death of Hank Gathers, reached the Elite Eight in 1990.
Then there was the 1999 run by Gonzaga all the way to the Elite Eight, which helped launch the program onto the national radar despite the Bulldogs playing in a “mid-major” conference.
And, of course, the best Cinderella story in recent years had to be Colonial Athletic Association power George Mason’s run to the Final Four in 2006.
That’s the glass slipper Butler will be trying on for size today, hoping to become the first mid-major “Cinderella” to reach the Final Four since the Patriots’ improbable run five years ago.
But the truth of that matter is that the “mid-major” teams aren’t exactly the underdog stories of tournaments past. Sure, seeing the likes of Butler, Northern Iowa, Xavier, St. Mary’s and Cornell in the Sweet 16 might seem like just an anomaly, when pitted against the perennial powerhouses that play as members of “BCS” Conferences.
In reality, though, the “mid-majors” are making a case that the gap between the haves and the have-nots has never been so close.
By now most March Madness fans know Butler by name. But for those who don’t, the Bulldogs have been making their name known far beyond their northern Indy neighborhood for several years now.
In all, the team has qualified for the tournament nine times in the past 14 seasons. After three-straight first round exits from the NCAA Tournament in the late ’90s, Butler first broke through to the second round in 2001.
In 2003, Butler reached the Sweet 16 for the first time, but this year’s run actually marked the third time they were among the final 16 teams out of the past eight seasons.
And now they’re among the Elite Eight.
So how does a school that boasts all of 4,000 students in “mid-major” conference become a program that consistently goes deeper in the NCAA Tournament than many of the “Major” conference members out there?
In a word, parity.
As some of the nation’s top recruits are more apt to go “one and done” with their college basketball career and bolt to the NBA as soon as they can, many of the “Major” programs are left with holes in their lineup year-in and year-out. But don’t feel bad for the likes of a Kentucky.
There’s not much doubt another blue-chipper will be ready to follow in John Wall’s shoes next year if he does leave Lexington after his freshman season.
Yet the “mid-majors” typically have their players around a lot longer than the perennial powerhouses these days, which helps with team chemistry and building a program’s future. And there’s not much doubt that the talent pool is quite a bit deeper than that of yesteryear.
We’re seeing the same thing in college football.
A few years back everyone loved calling “Boise State” the Cinderella of the BCS. But now, after beating top programs across the country year after year, the Broncos are finally getting into the national title talk. (It might just be talk at this point, but considering the contempt with which WAC programs were viewed in the past, having a seat at the table is major progress).
Of course, while college football is still stiff-arming the “mid-majors” through its BCS Bowl system, college basketball is actually embracing the notion of parity. Coaches, athletic directors and NCAA officials are all kicking around the idea of expanding the tournament to 96 teams, affording more Cinderellas a ticket to the Big Dance.
You can argue the merits of whether expansion only waters down the product, but you can’t argue that there aren’t many more “mid-major” teams out there capable of beating the “majors” than ever.
Thankfully, unlike with college football, the Butlers of the college basketball world actually get a fair chance at making that happen.
Brian Hamilton is sports editor at The Union. Contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 477-4240.
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