The Cinderella story is what makes March Madness so popular and captivating. With Butler and VCU each making the Final Four in recent years, the mid-majors are as relevant as ever and their success is no longer just relegated to the first weekend of the tournament.
The qualifications for being considered a mid-major is not being a member of any of the major six conferences. Also, due to the pedigree of most of the teams that comprise the conference as well as the fact that it currently ranks second in conference RPI, I will not include members of the Mountain West Conference as mid-majors either.
There are also certain teams that are outside of these conferences, but are largely considered to be power programs. Schools like Butler, Gonzaga and Memphis have proven themselves enough to be considered one of the big boys and are disqualified from this list.
With no dominant team in college basketball, the following three schools are teams that are under the radar, but can make a deep run come March.
A lot was expected from the Blue Jays entering the year. They were a No. 8 seed in last year’s tournament, they had a preseason All-American in Doug McDermott and were ranked No. 15 in the preseason, but the Jays have yet to hit their stride.
Although they have struggled early in conference play and are without a signature win, at 18-3, Creighton remains a formidable opponent and will be a dangerous team come tournament time. Their offensive inconsistencies are concerning, but when McDermott is hitting shots, they are a very difficult team to beat.
The Missouri Valley Conference has a history of pulling upsets in the tournament, but the Blue Jays have only won two tournament games in the last 12 years.
That being said, a team that that does not live up to expectations during the regular season often receives a higher seed than they deserve in the tournament and can pose a serious threat to one of the big boys they play in the first or second round.
This year is very similar to 2009 and 2010 where dark horses reigned supreme and no team was immune from an upset. In a year as unpredictable as this, a team like Creighton can very easily get hot and advance.
Stephen F. Austin
The Lumberjacks made their first and only tournament in 2009 and promptly exited in the first round after a 59-44 loss to Syracuse.
This year the Lumberjacks have gotten off to one of the best starts in the country. At 16-2 and leading the Southland Conference, Stephen F. Austin is one of the best kept secrets in the country.
They have signature road wins against Oklahoma and Tulsa and one of their two losses came in a close defeat to Texas A&M on the road.
Much of the Lumberjacks’ success can be attributed to their offensive proficiency. They are No. 10 in the country with 16.9 assists per game and shoot 47.7 percent from the field.
Stephen F. Austin is led by senior forward Taylor Smith who averages 14.9 points per game and 8.7 rebounds per game. He is shooting 69.2 percent from the field and, as he goes, so does the Lumberjack offense.
Although Northwestern St. and Oral Roberts have gotten off to solid starts in conference play, it is unlikely that Stephen F. Austin will be seriously challenged for the regular season conference crown.
The tricky nature of any good team from a weak conference is what to do if they do not earn the automatic bid from winning the conference tournament. If this were to happen to Stephen F. Austin, the Lumberjacks could have as many as 28 wins and it would be difficult for the selection committee to keep them out.
If they do make it to the tournament, look for them to be about a No. 10 seed and, with a little luck, they could make it to the second weekend.
New conference, no problem. The Bruins moved from the Atlantic Sun Conference to the Ohio Valley Conference this past off-season, but they still remain a formidable threat.
Under the Rick Byrd regime, the Bruins have transitioned from a NAIA program to a March mainstay. They have only missed the tournament twice since 2006 and, although they have never won a game, they are most famous for nearly beating Duke as a No. 15 seed in 2008.
Belmont made the tournament last year, but made a quick exit when they were defeated by Georgetown 74-59 in the first round.
This year, the Bruins show no signs of slowing down. Belmont is 17-4, 8-0 in conference play and have a signature win against Stanford on the road. They have won 10 of their last 11 games thanks in large part to the play of senior guard Ian Clark.
Clark is leading Belmont with 19.2 points per game thanks to his sharp-shooting from outside—he is shooting 51.1 percent from three-point range.
Having solid guard play and good outside shooting is critical for any team in the tournament, but especially for mid-majors. In most games, they are going up against teams that have superior athleticism and strength, so if they pound the ball down low, they will get worn out in the second half.
Having smart guards is a way of combating that fatigue against a better team and is often the difference between winning and losing.
With the introduction of the three-point shot as the great equalizer of talent as well as the lack of dominant teams in modern college basketball, deep runs by mid-major programs are becoming more common.
With the parity this year, any one of these teams are capable of making a name for themselves in March.