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Mid-major madness

Being in a 'mid-major' conference could hurt schools like St. Mary's

Posted: Tuesday January 11, 2005 12:37PM; Updated: Tuesday January 11, 2005 1:09PM
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St. Mary's
Despite upsetting Gonzaga, St. Mary's still may have to win the WCC tournament to make the NCAAs.

Me being the simple sort, I assumed that when a term gets used often by lots of people, it must actually mean something. So this week, I e-mailed two NCAA spokesmen with some simple questions: What, precisely, is the definition of the term "mid-major"? If there's such a thing as a "mid-major" conference, doesn't that mean there have to be such things as "high-major" and "low-major" conferences?

Replied one: "The term 'mid-majors' is one mostly coined and used in the world of the pundits more than by the NCAA tournament selection committee. In fact, the committee specifically avoids use of the term altogether. While your logic is sensible, I can say that in the five years I've been in [the committee room], I've not heard the terms 'high majors' and 'low majors' once."

Replied the other: "One time a committee member, referring to the media's use of the term, said, 'Just what is a mid-major, anyway?' No one in the room seemed to know. It's just not in our lexicon."

When I asked two of the deans of college hoopsdom, Jim O'Connell of the Associated Press and Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News, to explain the term, they seemed to fall back on the porn standard: You know it when you see it. "To me, it just means you're not one of the big boys," O'Connell said. Added DeCourcy: "I've always said, look at a team like Fresno State. Do they look more like Iowa or more like Illinois-Chicago?" DeCourcy also pointed out that while the term "mid-major" might be considered an insult to some leagues (Atlantic-10, Conference USA), there are others that would love to be considered as such (MEAC, Northeast Conference).

The term "mid-major" may not be in the NCAA's lexicon, but it is certainly in the general public's vocabulary. The public, however, has never defined it. I've always thought the term "mid-major" correlated to the conference RPI rankings. The first 10 leagues are "high" majors, the second 10 are "mid" majors and the last 11 are "low" majors. But that's hard to apply to the current RPI standings, which rank the West Coast Conference seventh and the Missouri Valley eighth. I may not know exactly what a "mid-major" league is, but I'm pretty sure those two qualify.

The reason I bring all this to your attention, Hoop Thinkers, is that I believe the WCC and the Missouri Valley should have at least five teams in the NCAA tournament combined. That's far from a lock, because despite their RPI rankings -- which are sure to plunge as we get further into conference play -- those leagues are saddled with the "mid-major" label. Unfair as it may be, that means the teams within them are operating on a very small margin for error.

Take, for instance, St. Mary's from the WCC. The Gaels just scored a huge home victory Saturday night by beating Gonzaga in a game they controlled from tip to buzzer. Gonzaga, you'll recall, recently beat Georgia Tech and Oklahoma State. But the win only improved St. Mary's record to 12-4, with two of its losses coming at Rutgers and at Hawaii -- two teams that probably will miss the NCAA tournament. That's sure to cause some tut-tutting two months hence.

St. Mary's also had "good" losses to Memphis and Mississippi State earlier in the year (made even better because they played without two injured starters). Yet, if the Gaels lose three or four games in conference play -- a strong possibility considering how good this league is -- they'll most likely have to win the WCC tournament to make the NCAAs.

Think of it another way: If St. Mary's had lost at home to Bucknell like Pittsburgh did, they'd have a hard time playing their way into the NCAA tournament through the conference. The Panthers, on the other hand, will have plenty of chances to make up for that "bad" loss. And I expect they will.

Creighton, which is 10-5, is in a similar predicament. The Bluejays defeated Missouri and Ohio State in Las Vegas during the preconference season, but they also lost to Kent State and Wyoming at home and to San Diego on the road. Following Sunday's home loss to a very good Southern Illinois team, Creighton fell to 2-2 in the Missouri Valley. One or two more losses will most likely put the Bluejays out of contention for an at-large bid. Do you think the same can be said of the sixth-best team in the SEC? Or the fourth-best team in the Pac-10?

Indeed, with the Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and Pac-10 all having down seasons, this seems like a great year for the NCAA selection committee to reach out to mid-major teams in the WCC and Missouri Valley. Alas, the mid-majors still get screwed more than they should in March.

What do I mean by getting screwed? I'm not sure, exactly. But I'll know it when I see it.

Other Hoop Thoughts

Maryland's main problem right now is a lack of consistent inside scoring (Travis Garrison can score inside, just not consistently). But what the Terps demonstrated most on Saturday is just how perilous it is to try to run with North Carolina. The Tar Heels are like a sucker pin placement in golf. They tease you into shooting for the birdie, but when you get up to the green, you're plugged in a deep bunker and on your way to a triple bogey.

• Here's a stat you don't see very often: UAB point guard Squeaky Johnson has more assists (71) than points (61).

• Looks like reports of Michigan's demise were a little premature. The Wolverines got a boost when Daniel Horton rejoined the team to help them beat Iowa. They'll get another one when forward Graham Brown returns at the end of this month.

Seth Davis will periodically answer questions from SI.com users in his Hoop Thoughts column.
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• Speaking of Iowa, it's not hard to figure out what the Hawkeyes' problem is of late: They're ranked last in the Big Ten in scoring defense. You can't win many games when you're giving up 81 points at Ohio State.

• So much for Arizona's improved defense. The Wildcats let Stanford shoot 58 percent in Saturday's loss, and they made Dan Grunfeld look like Pistol Pete.

• I hope Pete Carroll is never foolish enough to hop back to the NFL. Don't mess with happiness, Pete.

• St. John's isn't winning many games, but the Johnnies sure are playing hard.

• Keep your eye on Juan Palacios, Louisville's freshman forward. He had 20 points in the loss to Houston and 23 in the win over TCU. His emergence as a second scoring option to Francisco Garcia is the key to the Cardinals' season.

• You know about three of UCLA's talented freshmen -- Jordan Farmar, Arron Afflalo and Josh Shipp -- but it was the least heralded member of that class, 6-foot-8 center Lorenzo Mata, who had the biggest basket in a win over Washington when he grabbed an offensive rebound in traffic and scored in the final minute. If Mata can help the Bruins shore up their inside game, which is their biggest weakness, this team just might sneak into the NCAA tournament.

• Another freshman who had a breakout game last weekend was Pittsburgh's Ronald Ramon, who went for 21 in the win at Rutgers. Pitt badly needs another perimeter scorer because defenses are otherwise free to focus solely on Carl Krauser.

• Three best final movie scenes ever: Jimmy Stewart's dash through the streets of Bedford Falls in It's a Wonderful Life; Richard Gere's strut through the paper factory in An Officer and a Gentleman; and the last-note hat-toss in The Full Monty.

• Kentucky is trying to promote Chuck Hayes as an All-American, but to me, an All-American is someone who always thinks he's the best player on the court. And I don't believe Hayes thinks that way.

• Only John Chaney would schedule road games at Duke and Maryland one week apart in January.

• For the life of me, I cannot understand why college basketball hasn't adopted the semi-circle so refs won't call so many charges when the defender is standing under the basket. The rule is already in place -- you can't take a charge under the basket. The semicircle would make it easier for the refs to make the call.

• As I've said before, Wayne Simien's thumb injury is the best thing that could have happened to Kansas. I always wonder why coaches are so reluctant to put unproven players in the game, yet when there's no choice but to play them they often come up big. I'll tell you this -- there's no way we'd know freshman forward Alex Galindo was this good (and this clutch) if Simien were healthy.

• Boston University beat Hartford 73-22 last weekend. Thought you should know.

• Another team that's rebounded from an awful start is Missouri, which has now beaten Gonzaga and Iowa State at home. What's more, the Tigers' loss to Houston doesn't look so bad now that the Cougars have also knocked off Louisville.

• This week's players who are better than you think: Temple guard Mardy Collins (solid scorer and maybe the best on-the-ball defender in the country), Boston College forward Jared Dudley (and you thought the Eagles were all Craig Smith); and Villanova junior forward Curtis Sumpter (he's hurt right now, but he's a big scorer who's awfully hard to guard).

• Notre Dame's Chris Thomas is a very good player who still takes way too many dumb shots for a senior.

• I'm also a big fan of Georgia Tech forward Is'mail Muhammad, but the word is out that you can defend Tech five-on-four because Muhammad is no threat to score in the halfcourt.

• Two point guards who always seem to be hurt: Stanford's Chris Hernandez and Louisville's Taquan Dean.

• Memphis' 74-67 loss at Texas last Thursday was a moral victory if ever there was one.

• Wisconsin's loss at Indiana on Saturday makes me wonder again if there's such thing as too much of a homecourt advantage. The Badgers have won 37 straight at the Kohl Center, but I think that has made them more susceptible to losing their confidence on the road. It also doesn't help that Sharif Chambliss is playing point guard but isn't really a point guard.

Weekend Pickoff Lineup

I'm sure Whit Ladue of College Park, Md., thought he was being clever when he dissed The Radiators while sending in his submission for last Friday's Weekend Pickoff. Clearly, the ploy backfired, for I defeated this musically misguided soul, going 8-2 to his 7-3 to increase my total lead over the readers to two games. However, I do give Whit credit for loyalty to his hometown squad. His decision to pick his Terps to upset the mighty Tar Heels is what cost him.

Here are the 10 games for this Friday's Pickoff column. You know the rules: Send in scores for all the games, plus a few sentences explaining your pick for the featured game, and check back on Friday to see if we used your picks.

Featured game: North Carolina at Wake Forest

Other games
Seton Hall at Pittsburgh
Louisville at Cincinnati
Pepperdine at Gonzaga
Temple at Maryland
Florida at Vanderbilt
Indiana at Purdue
Michigan State at Wisconsin
Boston College at West Virginia
Boston University at Vermont

Sports Illustrated staff writer Seth Davis covers college basketball for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com. Davis' first book, Equinunk, Tell Your Story: My Return to Summer Camp, is available through Chandler House Press.