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Tuesday, March 23, 2010
'Mid-major' still means something

By Eamonn Brennan

Xavier/Cornell/Saint Mary's
"Mid-major" programs such as Xavier, Cornell and Northern Iowa overcame higher-seeded teams from one of the big six BCS conferences to make the Sweet 16.
After looking over the seeds and conference affiliations of each of the Sweet 16 teams playing in this year's third round, it's easy to see why the conversation over what constitutes a "mid-major" -- that much-derided term that, as currently defined, means "a team outside the big six BCS conferences" -- would begin anew. This is not a novel topic. We deal with it almost every year. But it's particularly relevant to the current NCAA tournament, in which elite programs from rich conferences have fallen to teams from the Missouri Valley, the WCC, and the Ivy League.

One such recent example:
No one can identify for sure when exactly the term "mid-major" became a fixture in college basketball, but the 2006 NCAA tournament -- the year George Mason reached the Final Four -- was clearly its boiling point. Years from now, here's hoping we'll similarly look back at the 2010 Dance as the event that rendered said phrase outdated, unnecessary and (this one's a long shot) extinct.

We've been conditioned to believe in some mystical distinction between schools that belong to the six power football leagues and those that don't, even when discussing a completely different sport. But if that's the case, how is it that 11 different conferences will be represented when this year's Sweet 16 commences Thursday night?

Unfortunately, though I wish this were the case, this argument lacks a certain measure of perspective. Sure, lots of different conference commissioners will be on hand Thursday and Friday night, and that's why this has been such an entertaining tournament. But notice that "tournament" is singular. This doesn't happen every year. In 2009, we had eight different conferences represented in the Sweet 16. Of the non-power-six conferences in that tournament, only the WCC (Gonzaga), A-10 (Xavier) and Conference-USA (Memphis) were on hand -- and none of those squads is anyone's true definition of a plucky underdog. Oh, the upheaval!

2008's tournament was slightly less chalky, with Western Kentucky and Stephen Curry's Davidson team getting into the second weekend, but the only other non-big six teams were, again, Memphis and Xavier, whom pretty much everyone agrees aren't "mid-majors" under any common use of the term. This year's tournament is wild, but the past two have been eminently chalky affairs. At the time, everyone complained. Did we forget so quickly?

The meme here is that college basketball is in a state of never-before-seen parity, that any team from any conference can win at any time. Which is true, once you get to the NCAA tournament. These aren't best of seven series. Upsets happen. It's a beautiful thing. But there's also this whole other part of the college hoops slate -- it's called the regular season -- and this is where the true inequality lies.

Kyle Whelliston, proprietor of The Mid-Majority, came up with a pretty good dividing line for what constitutes a "mid-major" conference years ago. It's not about talent or NCAA tournament success. It's about, quite simply, money:
College basketball is about money first and foremost, and there are haves, and have-lesses. Don't think budgets matter? Tell it to a school that's had its coach hired away for double his previous salary, or a program that was drubbed in the recruiting game by a bigger school with more money to burn and a name that you can find on the front of sweatshirts at Modell's. Competitive balance has long been a major issue in professional sports -- you don't expect the small-market Rays to hang with the big-bucks Yankees, do you? -- and the NCAA will never, ever have a salary cap or basement. [...] There's a red line at $20 million (a college hoops Mendoza line, if you will), and any conferences with a higher average athletic budget should have all the resources they need with which to recruit top players and hire top coaches and buy wins.

This Red Line stays pretty constant, as do its results. In 2008-09, the Big Ten, SEC, Big 12, Pac-10, ACC, Big East, Mountain West and C-USA all exceeded it. (A few of these conferences don't just exceed it but triple it.) In that same year, teams from conferences with an average athletics department budget of $20 million or greater beat teams below that line 87 percent of the time. 87 percent! Oh, the equality!

Pretty much everyone agrees that the term "mid-major" is fraught with liabilities. It doesn't take into account teams like Memphis, Xavier, Gonzaga and Butler, all teams from outside the BCS big six who have the sort of consistent success we associate with BCS conference college programs. But those programs are the exceptions, not the rule. (Memphis isn't even below the Red Line, remember.) Since few can seem to agree on what a "mid-major" is, fine, let's throw the term out. Let's devise a new one.

Whatever that new term is, though -- and I'm bad at these things, so I'm going to spare you the cheesy things floating around in my head -- let's not forget what it ought to stand for: College basketball is not an egalitarian ideal. With the exception of a few days in March, when a few proles get to play at the palace, college basketball is cold, hard oligarchy.

Thank goodness for the NCAA tournament, where some of this unfairness is revealed and rectified. But make no mistake: College basketball is still unfair. Mid-majors, or whatever we want to call them, still deserve distinction. They're not big schools. They don't have $65 million athletic budgets. They're succeeding anyway. If calling them mid-majors means we're forced to remember just how amazing that success is, well, what's wrong with that?