- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Year of the Mid-Major reached another crescendo last weekend when a quarter of the teams that emerged from the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament were from out-of-the-mainstream leagues.

It was the latest reason for analysts to break out the ‘P’ word — parity. Yet for those paying closer attention, the mid-majors have been on the march well before this month.

That’s not to say anyone should or will begrudge Bradley, George Mason and Wichita State their well-earned plaudits. Nor can arguably the greatest mid-major of the last decade, Gonzaga, be ignored for reaching the second weekend for the first time since 2001.

Pretending the leveling of the college hoops landscape happened overnight, however, is just plain short-sighted.

“It didn’t start this year,” said George Mason coach Jim Larranaga, whose Patriots earned an at-large bid out of the CAA. “It kind of started to snowball last year when the Missouri Valley got two at-large bids. The coaches in our league said ‘How come we didn’t get one? We have a great league, too.’”

The Colonial proved it as two teams earned NCAA berths and another — Hofstra — was perched on the bubble on Selection Sunday. The Valley, meanwhile, earned four berths for the first time in its history, and two of those teams (Bradley and Wichita State) survived the first weekend of the tournament.

Some of that was made possible because the NCAA tournament is played on neutral courts. That takes away the built-in advantage most major conferences enjoy throughout most of the season and exposes how similarly talented many teams are throughout the country.

“They’re closer than they’ve ever been,” Missouri Valley Conference commissioner Doug Elgin said. “The difference between 5 and 13 is almost insignificant. You have a No. 13 in Bradley playing a No. 4 in Kansas. I don’t think it’s a mistake in the seeding. The teams were fairly evenly matched.”

CBS analyst Billy Packer derided some of those at-large selections when the 65-team bracket was unveiled, though he was quick to compliment the mid-majors this week for their performance in the first two rounds.

What he doesn’t understand, however, is the ruckus about how such success is unprecedented.

“They went in a little down spell in 2000,” Packer said. “So if history goes back to 2000, this is a scenario that does make sense. But the theory that is jumping on a brand new bandwagon, it’s just not there.”

Packer based much of his argument around the six traditional power conferences — the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC — which is a bit misleading. The old Metro Conference and its successors, the Great Midwest and Conference USA, are excluded from that group, as is the Atlantic 10 despite its strong run in the mid-1990s.

Schools such as UNLV (1980s and early 1990s) and Utah (mid-to-late 1990s) were also left out, even though both fielded indisputably major programs in mid-major leagues.

Packer’s general point, though, remains valid. Usually one or two mid-major schools slip into the second weekend and become the tournament’s feel-good story, only to stumble well before realizing the improbable dream of a Final Four berth.

Some changes in college basketball in the last decade have led to greater equity. Wichita State coach Mark Turgeon pointed to the since-discarded 5-and-8 rule, which limited teams to five new scholarship players in a single year and eight over two seasons, as a way for mid-majors to improve their talent level.

They also keep their talent longer. While the best players at major-conference schools often defect to the professional level after a few seasons, mid-major programs usually keep a nucleus of savvy, smart players together for four years.

“I just think there’s a lot of good basketball players in America that grow up and want to be a part of this tournament,” Turgeon said. “The talent level across the board is getting better. You look at George Mason, Bradley, us, we have really good players.”

Added Larranaga: “We basically have 15 all-conference players who played last year as underclassmen and came back as upperclassmen. That’s why [the CAA’s] been so successful.”

The success is finally getting some notice, and it only took victories over traditional powers such as Kansas, Michigan State, North Carolina to receive it. The mid-majors have three teams in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1999 and are guaranteed a spot in a regional final thanks to Friday’s Wichita State-George Mason meeting at Verizon Center.

It could continue in future years, especially if the tournament selection committee continues to reward mid-majors for playing solid nonconference schedules that feature a minimal number of guarantee games against the dregs of Division I.

“I just hope with the success, next year’s selection committee instead of taking the eighth place team from a BCS conference will take the second or third team from the Colonial or Missouri Valley or whatever league is having a great year,” Turgeon said. “Those are teams that are hot and have played well all year and deserve to be in this tournament.”

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