Mid-majors. Everybody loves them, right? Haven't we always been led to believe that the Cinderella story is what March Madness is all about? Well, I'm all for seeing the occasional David over Goliath in the NCAA Tournament, but what about the mid-major teams that don't really belong there in the first place? What about a team like last year's Northern Iowa team that shouldn't have even been selected and got blown out by 19 in the first round by Wisconsin? Should there be any backlash about overrated mid-majors?
Seems to me that there has been too much of an effort recently to hype up undeserving mid-majors for NCAA at-large bids. I’ll start off by saying that I don’t have a problem with mid-majors. If anything, I’m all for giving them some love if they deserve it. I grew up around A-10 and MAC hoops, and the quality of play in those leagues is better than some people realize. It's no coincidence that one or two of these mid-major teams always seem to end up in the Sweet 16. If a team in a mid-major league piles up a 14-2 conference record, beats a couple decent teams in the nonconference, but happens to stumble in the conference tournament, I have no problem with giving them an at-large bid.
With that said, take a look at the latest Bracketology on ESPN.com. Five teams are listed as “in” from the Missouri Valley Conference. FIVE. More than the ACC, Pac-10, and Big 12. Southern Illinois and Wichita State are each listed as #7 seeds. The Colonial Athletic Association has 2 teams. The WAC has 2. The Mountain West has 2. Conference USA has 2. In all, 8 at-large bids to mid-major teams.
Ten years ago, it would be notable if 2 mid-major teams got a bid to the Big Dance as an at-large team. Three mid-majors was unheard of. The thought of 5 teams going into the Big Dance from one mid-major conference was unfathomable.
Why has college basketball fallen in love with the mid-majors in recent years?
In my opinion, there are three reasons:
1) Thin-skinned committee – You know the committee. Bunch of old ADs from BCS conferences who love nothing more than a little face time on CBS. The last thing they want to deal with is a bunch of criticism from the media over their selections. So instead of picking the best 34 at-large teams, they try to appease everybody and throw a bone to the mid-major leagues. Let’s be honest, these people on the committee are going to get a lot more grief from the reporters out there if they snub a bunch of plucky mid-majors in favor of mediocre BCS conference teams. On the other hand, if they select the mid-majors, you won’t hear too many people screaming about an 8-8 Indiana team getting left out. The perception is that a team like Indiana that can’t even finish above .500 in its own league probably isn’t that good anyway, so you might as well just give the mid-major team a shot. The committee comes off looking great by doing this.
Solution: Grow a pair! If one of these committee members actually had any guts, he would point out that some of these mid-majors up for consideration would be lucky to finish 5-11 in a BCS conference. It’s true. Throw Missouri State or Southern Illinois in the Big East, and they’d be bringing up the rear with St. Johns, Providence, and DePaul. There’s too much size and depth in the Big East for those teams, and they would fall apart down the stretch.
Instead of some brutal honesty, the committee wimps out and picks the mid-major to avoid getting slammed for favoring the big school teams. Why won’t a committee member sack up and tell the truth? Seems to me that they’re afraid of being labeled as the oppressor holding the little guy down.
2) ESPN – If you don’t think ESPN has been partly responsible for all the mid-major hype in recent years, you’re kidding yourselves. ESPN is constantly hyping the mid-majors. I can’t really blame them for it. Between Bracketology and the Bracket Busters games and the Bubble Watch stuff, ESPN has a ton of programming/web content related to the mid-majors. By throwing some love to the mid-majors, they get increased interest from those fanbases. It's great for these mid-majors to get the exposure, and it's even better for ESPN. Now they have fans from these small MVC schools logging in every Monday to see what ESPN thinks of their chances to get in the tournament. By listing Southern Illinois and Missouri State as bubble teams, ESPN throws them into the conversation. College hoops fans know about the MVC teams because we’ve been hearing about them all year. If ESPN had never mentioned them, I highly doubt they even would be considered for an NCAA bid.
Solution: Not much you can do about this. ESPN has a ton of influence on sports, and it doesn’t appear that they are going to stop showcasing the mid-majors any time soon. As long as ESPN decides to list a bunch of undeserving mid-majors as “bubble” teams, the committee is going to have a tough time leaving all those teams out of the dance.
3) RPI ratings – Here’s the thing about the RPI. It can very easily be manipulated. I can’t believe more people haven’t caught onto this yet. Look at all these MVC teams. They all have quality RPI ratings.
Wichita State – 19
Missouri State – 21
Northern Iowa – 24
Creighton – 28
Southern Illinois – 34
Now let’s look a little closer. Who have these teams actually beaten other than themselves? Not a whole lot.
Wichita State has beaten absolutely nobody out of the league unless you consider a home win over Providence a quality win (most Big East teams sure as heck don’t). Missouri State boasts Oral Roberts as their best nonconference win. Yes, Oral freaking Roberts.
And then there’s Southern Illinois. The same Southern Illinois currently listed as a #7 seed on Bracketology. Home loss to Monmouth (who?) by 12. Lost to Alaska-Anchorage. Lost to Louisiana Tech at home. Lost to Indiana State at home by 9. Mid major apologists will point to their 18-9 overall record and strong conference performance. This just in. 18-9 in the Missouri Valley Conference isn’t good enough. Syracuse is 18-8 for god sakes, and I’ll be damned if Syracuse hasn’t played a tougher schedule than Southern Illinois.
Well, now you’re probably wondering “how do these schools have such high RPIs when they aren’t playing anybody?" Here’s the answer. The MVC has cracked the RPI code. They figured out how to manipulate the RPI to give their teams inflated RPI ratings. Everyone in the conference stays away from the really, really bad teams (+200 RPI), plays a bunch of teams in the 80-199 RPI range, and schedules a few teams from big conferences with good RPIs (of course they lose to them). That keeps the conference RPI up pretty high going into conference play.
Then they get into conference play, play each other, and the wins they get are all looked at as quality wins. By beating Wichita State, Creighton (twice), and Missouri State, Southern Illinois can point to 4 top 30 RPI wins. Are those great wins? Heck no, but the RPI thinks they are. At the end of the season, they can flash their sweet RPI rating and demand an at-large bid. The unassuming hacks in the media will shrug their shoulders and start to campaign for them. It’s a sham. The small conferences get together and meet about this stuff, and it’s become a road map to get a bunch of teams on the NCAA bubble.
I watched Cincinnati manipulate the RPI for 10 years, so I’ve seen how it works for awhile now. Huggins readily admitted that they scheduled a bunch of 100-150 RPI teams instead of +250 RPI teams because it made a huge difference in the final RPI numbers. They used to scout the mid-major leagues and schedule home games with the projected best teams in those leagues. In the end, a home win over Northern Iowa meant about the same to the RPI as a home win over Arizona or Oklahoma. UC would go the entire year without any marquee wins, but you’d look up at the end of the year and see them sitting in the top 10 in the RPI. The committee never caught on. UC got #2 and #3 seeds year after year that they didn’t deserve. You could count on them losing in the second round game because they had no business being seeded where they were.
Truly amazing how dumb the NCAA is at times.
Solution: Get rid of the RPI already. I can’t believe this thing is still being used as a tool for selecting at-large teams. It is no longer a good indicator of how good you truly are. Instead, it shows how skilled you are in statistics and accouting.
I say forget the computers. Take a look at the team’s schedule, and figure out who they beat and who they lost to. If a mid-major dominated its league and has a couple decent nonconference wins, then they should get consideration. If not, then tough luck. Blind faith in the RPI rating makes absolutely no sense at all.
Conclusion: Enough with the mid-major affirmative action. I can’t believe there hasn’t been more of a backlash from college basketball fans. As a Notre Dame fan, it chaps me to see a team like Southern Illinois in the tournament because I know we would roll them. Stick ND in the MVC, and we’d probably be leading that conference. Stick Southern Illinois in the Big East, and they might as well change their name to Providence.