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March Madness: Don’t Cry For Mid-Majors

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Every season on Selection Sunday, we debate and debate about what teams should be in the NCAA Tournament and what teams should not, and when the bracket is finally announced, we decry the decisions about the perceived last teams to make the field versus the teams left out. Increasingly, this discussion has turned into a divisive argument about so-called Mid-Majors, their inclusion or exclusion, and how they are obstructed from building selection-worthy resumes by greedy major programs who refuse to play them. This season was the worst I have seen, with one of the major networks’ coverage nearly immediately devolving into a near shouting match about so-called mid-major St. Mary’s of California’s exclusion and power-conference Arizona’s inclusion. As has been noted repeatedly, either of these teams could win a few games, if given the opportunity, in the NCAA Tournament, but the fortunate thing is that we are talking about who is the 34th versus 35th best team, NOT the 2nd versus 3rd best. So, the real question should be whether or not those teams would be capable of winning the National Championship (because, ultimately, the NCAA Tournament’s purpose is to crown said champion). It has also been noted that teams from the power conferences (the Big East, ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac 10) are taking an increasingly disproportionate number of the available at-large bids, to the point where an all-time high 30 of the 34 at-large bids this season went to teams from those conferences. That means that teams from conferences like the Mountain West, Missouri Valley, West Coast, Western Athletic, and Conference USA are increasingly relegated to the NIT. So, I decided to investigate whether or not that slight was real or just perceived, and I decided that looking into performance in the NIT would be a good measure. After all, the teams that are in the NIT are alleging that they should have been included in the NCAA field.

Before progressing, I want to point out that I thoroughly enjoy watching college basketball at nearly all levels of Division 1 competition. I watched at least parts of some 27 of the 30 conference tournament championships last week, and I will parking myself in a sports bar this coming weekend to watch all of the first two rounds’ action that I can. I have also been known to stay up to catch some of my favorite west coast teams (e.g., Gonzaga, Utah, Nevada, Saint Mary’s, New Mexico) and/or players (e.g., Patty Mills, Nick Fazekas, Keith Van Horn), so I love the so-call mids as much as anyone who is not a fan of one of those schools or conferences. So, that is my disclaimer – I enjoy the mids and I really do think that more of them becoming better more consistently (a la Gonzaga and Memphis) would be good for college basketball as a whole.

Evaluating the NIT performance is made difficult by the variety of formats and the ways the selection have been done, but I arbitrarily decided to look at the performance since the 1999-2000 season (the 2000-2008 NITs). From 2002-2006, there were 40 teams in the NIT, and from 2000-2001 and 2007 to the present, there have been 32 teams included. Over that time, there have been 328 NIT bids, of which 127 (38.7%) have gone to teams from the power conferences, with the numbers from any given season ranging from a low of 10 (25% of the field) in 2002 to a high of 18 (45% of the field) in 2004 and 2006. In those nine years, seven of the champions have come from power conferences, with the 2001 Tulsa and 2002 Memphis titles being the exceptions. Additionally, seven of the nine runners-up and twelve of the fourteen semifinalists were power conference teams. Altogether, that means 26 of the 36 teams, or 72.2%, to make the trip to Madison Square Garden for the NIT’s semifinals since 2000 have been teams from power conferences. Interestingly, the years during which the mids did well at the NIT, there were also large numbers of them in the NCAA field.

Now, none of this data indicts specific teams or conferences, and maybe Saint Mary’s is good enough this year to win the NIT (personally, I thought they were good enough to advance deep into the NCAA Tournament). But, this could be useful data if you want to make a case against the inclusion of additional so-called mid-major teams in favor of teams from power conferences. It seems to me that, given the chance to battle it out amongst themselves, the bubble teams have shown time and time again, that the most deserving (or at least the most consistent) teams have been from power conferences.

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About Aaron Markowitz

  • Another good sample size would be to see how well the “last teams in” fared in their NCAA games. I know George Mason was one such team.