Making a Case for St. Mary's and Other Mid-Majors

Eric FlaxmanContributor IApril 16, 2009

Leading up to the NCAA tournament and selection Sunday, I had been watching the experts talk about who was going to get in to the tournament and who was going to miss it. I was especially interested in this because I am a senior at St. Mary's College of California.

As most of you know, we were on the bubble and were eagerly waiting the selection committee’s final decisions. While listening to the analysts talk about who was going to make the tournament, I was impressed by their thorough examination of each bubble team.

Up until the tournament bracket was released I believed most of the experts had it correct. They stated Creighton should make the tournament and, if for some reason it didn't, St. Mary's would.

However, neither of these happened. Shockingly, Arizona made the tournament over both Creighton and St Mary's.

While watching the selection show special after the brackets had been announced, I was most interested in the argument between Dick Vitale and Jay Bilas. For those of you who didn't see the argument, let me sum it up for you.

Dick Vitale stated that St. Mary's should have made the tournament because it was such a good team before Patty Mills got hurt, then still played well enough after to still be considered a tournament team.

Bilas' argument was that St. Mary's didn't deserve to make the tournament because it didn't play any really good teams during non-conference play. Vitale then rebutted Bilas by saying that no one would play St. Mary's and other mid-majors, so the mid-majors are at a huge disadvantage.

Bilas then said that was nonsense and that any team can play anyone they want. Although Bilas is a pretty smart guy and is usually right about these things, both he and Vitale are wrong in this situation.

First, the argument about St. Mary's soft non-conference schedule is not entirely true. St. Mary's played nine road games in its non-conference schedule. The Gaels beat Providence, Southern Illinois, and San Diego State on neutral courts, and Oregon and Kent State at their respective home courts.

St. Mary's biggest problems this year were that Oregon was terrible, Kent State was a lot worse than it normally is, and Southern Illinois—normally a competitive and tournament-quality team—struggled mightily.

Each of these teams’ struggles caused St. Mary's schedule to look a lot worse than normal. This was completely out of St. Mary's control because it had to schedule the games far before they knew how good these teams were going be this season. Even though this is a down year for these teams, St. Mary’s still had a very respectable non-conference schedule.

Vitale said that the Gaels couldn't get anyone to play them. If that's the case, then why did Oregon, which was ranked in the top 25 last year, agree to play us at St. Mary's?

Also, another mid-major—Davidson—played against Oklahoma, Purdue, and Duke this year, all of which were seeded fifth or better in the NCAA tournament. So the argument that mid-majors can't get anyone to play them is wrong.

Both Bilas and Vitale, along with all the other analysts, have totally missed the argument about mid-majors and whether or not they should make the tournament. The argument should not be about their non-conference schedules but rather the huge advantage that major schools have during their conference play.

What I mean by this is that a team like St. Mary's has two important games during its conference play and both those games are against Gonzaga. Beating any other team during conference play is a necessity and won’t look good if they win; it will just look bad if they lose.

Now let's take a look at a team like Arizona. Arizona played no hard road games in its non-conference schedule and its only two good wins were against Kansas and Gonzaga, but both were at home.

Here's where major conferences have a huge advantage over mid-majors. Arizona went .500 in the Pac-10 during a down year for the Pac-10, which is not very impressive.
However, because the Wildcats play in the Pac-10, they automatically get to play Washington, USC, Arizona State, Washington State, California, and Stanford every year.

So while St. Mary's gets to play one tournament team during conference play, Arizona gets to play four.

This is the real problem when trying to figure out the best 64 teams in the NCAA. How do you compare a team like St. Mary's—which plays nine road games in its non-conference schedule but only has one other good team in its conference—to Arizona, which played two road games at UNLV and Texas A&M, and lost both of them, but finished 9-9 in its conference, which got four teams into the tournament.

I would argue that St. Mary's was more deserving of an NCAA bid because even though it didn't play or beat as many good teams as Arizona did, it didn’t have the opportunity to play nearly as many quality teams because of the conference in which it plays.

One way to combat this is to “award” a good conference win as half of a good non-conference win. A team like St. Mary's could play four games in its non-conference schedule against RPI top 50 teams, which would count as four wins. But Arizona could play the two games in its non-conference schedule and four teams in its conference with top-50 RPIs and it would work out to four wins each.

That would make it easier to compare a team from a major conference to a team from a non-major conference.

These are the reasons why I disagree with the experts that say that non-conference scheduling is what separates the majors from the mid-majors. In actuality, it is the conference schedules and the fact that teams from better conferences play more games against better teams. They have to win fewer games and don't have to play as well overall to still be ranked higher than mid-majors.

This was my first article so I hope you like it. If you agree or disagree with my arguments, let me know and if you think there is a better way to compare mid-majors and majors, then let me know because I am very interested in this topic.