Originally Published: January 27, 2014

So you think you're a mid-major?

By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com

What is a mid-major, anyway?

In 1977, just minutes after a game against Howard University, former Catholic University coach Jack Kvancz was attempting to describe to reporters the merits of his team's level of competition (Division II) -- why the game against the Bison represented a nebulous ideal he didn't quite have the terminology to sum up.

"It was everything that basketball's about at the level of our program," Kvancz said. "For a game between two 'mid-majors,' or whatever you'd call us, it had anything you could ask for."

There, in a throwaway quote after an otherwise nondescript game, Kvancz recorded the first known use of the term "mid-major" -- and then followed it up with the perfect qualifier. Or whatever you'd call us.

Even now, more than a quarter of a century later, after Gonzaga indirectly popularized the usage, and after George Mason and Butler and VCU and so many others made it stick, mid-major is simultaneously our sport's most widely used and frustratingly vague term. We still have no idea what it means.

For years, Kyle Whelliston's efforts at The Mid-Majority, a website devoted to the hundreds of less-heralded members of Division I college hoops, provided some clarity on the matter. In 2008, Whelliston invented the "Red Line," a conference revenue cut-off point (or a "college hoops Mendoza line," the type of shorthand reference-within-reference that makes the uninitiated head spin). If your team's league was below the line, it was a mid-major. Above, not so much. There were exceptions, of course -- no one has thought of Gonzaga as a true mid-major for a decade -- but in any case the Red Line's real utility was what it made plain about college basketball: That it was "about money first and foremost," a world of "haves, and have-lesses."

For most of the Red Line's life, college hoops conferences remained static. Then, in 2012 and 2013, realignment changed everything. Six years later, the Big East is a basketball-only conference with former members of the Missouri Valley Conference, Atlantic 10 and Horizon League among its ranks. The A-10's brief dalliance with high major life has ended in turn. The American looks a lot like the old Conference USA; Conference USA has plummeted into sub-Red Line obscurity. The Mountain West was good enough (and football-y enough) to deserve high-major distinction in recent years; the Pac-12 has resoundingly reclaimed the West Coast crown this season. And so on. Realignment has thrown the margins of the mid-high-major divide into a blender. What are we to make of this mess?

What if -- brace yourself for a Gladwellian counterintuitive eureka in three … two … one -- things weren't that messy after all?

John Gasaway examined exactly that question, and reached something approaching that conclusion, in December. At that time, the divide between the top seven leagues (Big Ten, ACC, Big East, Big 12, Pac-12, American, SEC) and Nos. 8, 9 and 10 (A-10, WCC, Mountain West) was larger and more obvious than it had been in years. It has been six weeks since John's post, and there has been plenty of movement within the top seven, plus some jockeying for position among the next three. The gap has narrowed here and there. But the top seven itself? Unchanged.

What's more: Since 2000, Gasaway found, the 2013-14 membership of the top seven won 754 NCAA tournament games between them. The next three leagues? Sixty-five. That is more than tidy findings from one season; that's a history-based wallop. Gasaway's conclusion was definitive: "There are seven major conferences."

Problem solved, right? Of course not! Those distinctions still don't account for Gonzaga or Wichita State or VCU, programs whose recent performance outranks loads of "high-major" schools in the conferences above. (Word to Northwestern.) We're also not accounting for the financial methodology that Whelliston pioneered, which is probably the most accurate way to do things; we still need to see how new conference athletics budgets shake out. Finally, if we're going to name names based on tournament performance (rather than cold hard cash), what's the point of the conference paradigm, anyway? Why not look at individual teams?

Wichita State is a perfect place to start.

Gregg Marshall's team doesn't feel like a mid-major by any reasonable definition of the term. Its always packed 11,000-seat arena has a lot to do with this, but mostly it's because Wichita State is very, very good. Since last season's trip to the Final Four, the Shockers haven't lost a game. That run of success (which really stretches back to 2011-12, when the Shockers lost in the first round of the tournament, but were vastly better on paper than last year's team) owes as much to Marshall's trademark glass-obsessed influence as to the talent of stars Cleanthony Early, Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet. Early is a multitalented force of a forward. Baker is a lights-out wing. And Van Vleet, the least feted entering this season, has arguably been the Shockers' best player -- and a point guard good enough to rank among Marcus Smart and Shabazz Napier as the best in the country, period.

On Saturday, Wichita State pounded another conference opponent (Drake, this time, 78-61), which pushed its record to 21-0 overall. On Jan. 11, Wichita State was pushed to the limit at Missouri State, but rallied from a 17-point deficit to win in overtime. If the Shockers manage to get past upcoming road trips to Indiana State (Feb. 5) and Northern Iowa (Feb. 8), their odds of going into postseason play unbeaten will skyrocket into the realm of the probable. In addition to WSU's excellence, this is true because the Shockers, through no fault of their own, are members of a decidedly mid-major conference, the Missouri Valley. Their path to immortality is smoother, but their margin for error is slim. Maybe that's what defines a mid-major.

Gonzaga, which has lorded over the West Coast Conference for more than a decade, has heard that story before. One season after its first (and unfairly derided) No. 1 NCAA tournament seed, the Bulldogs are beset by injuries and bad defense, and while they've been good -- they are 18-3, after all -- their unusual lack of quality nonconference wins (and Jan. 9 loss at Portland) may hurt their NCAA tournament seed come March.

UMass and Saint Louis, the class of the Atlantic 10, don't much feel like mid-majors, either. In any case, they should benefit from a stronger A-10 than many predicted. The Minutemen are experiencing their breakout season under sixth-year coach Derrick Kellogg; led by point guard Chaz Williams, they manage to play up-tempo, 71.5-possessions-per-game basketball without sacrificing effectiveness on the defensive end. The Billikens, meanwhile, are just a nightmare to play: Slow, methodical, and physical, they allow just 0.87 points per trip, per kenpom.com, the fewest in the nation.

The Mountain West has been so good for the better part of a half-decade, its 2013-14 pound-for-pound plummet into the ranks of quasi-mid-major-dom has been downright shocking. But don't blame San Diego State. After Saturday's thrilling overtime win at Utah State, when Xavier Thames added yet another piece of evidence to his player of the year dossier, the Aztecs are 18-1 with a neutral court win over Creighton and a road win at Kansas (yes, a road win at Kansas) to their names. (Their only loss came Nov. 14 to Arizona.)

Don't worry: There are plenty of examples of real mid-majors that don't require the scare quotes: Louisiana Tech is playing top-20 defense as a new C-USA member, and Southern Miss might be even better; Green Bay is shredding the Horizon League; Stephen F. Austin is fighting back the occasional defensive yawn against Southland opponents; and even Harvard, despite last week's loss at Florida Atlantic, looks like a near-lock to scare first-round tournament opponents again this March. These are the easy examples, the teams whose leagues are below the mid-major threshold no matter what threshold you actually apply.

The rest -- Wichita State? San Diego State? -- are not so easy. That's why it's probably just best if we kill the term mid-major after all. It had a good run, but it got out of hand. Now, even as so much of the sport's annual power structure congregates in seven conferences, the distinctions between what is and is not a mid-major feel as meaningless as ever. The term still doesn't mean anything.

It's a new era, and it demands a new term -- something that describes just how futile this whole distinction really is. The "others?" Nah. That's what Shaquille O'Neal called his teammates, which makes it inherently insulting. That won't work.

Wait. We've got it. The or-whatever-you-want-to-call-thems. It's a mouthful, sure. But hey: It makes exactly as much sense as "mid-major." Hopefully, Kvancz would be proud.

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