The relevancy and strength of the mid-majors can be measured by simply looking at Final Four fields throughout history.
From 1999 through 2005, the Final Four was filled with the big schools. Utah, a WAC team at the time, made it in 1998, and then the next mid-major in the Final Four was George Mason in 2006.
Another mini-drought took place from 2007 through 2009. Since that time, it has become a good bet that at least one mid-major will make it to the Final Four each season.
In 2010, it was Butler. The next season was Butler and VCU. And then this past year, Wichita State crashed the party.
So what are the odds a mid-major makes a trip to the Jerry Dome in 2014? I’d say about 60 percent, as in if I had to bet on it, I would take the mid-major gamble.
Reason to bet on the other side is that some of the best programs that fit the mid-major definition are ending up in power conferences. Utah, for instance, is now a Pac-12 school. Butler and Creighton are off to the new Big East next season.
Since the little guys like to root for each other—they even have their own website—here’s a look at the teams that could continue to carry the mid-major banner through March and into April in 2014.
Before you jump to the comment section and shout about how overrated Gonzaga is, think about this.
Which team did Wichita State have the most trouble beating on its way to the Final Four? I’ll save you the trouble of re-watching the games; it was Gonzaga.
If not for the Shockers hitting 14 threes and knocking off the Zags, Mark Few’s team could have been the one in Atlanta.
Few has another really good team returning. He loses Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris up front, but he returns Sam Dower and Przemek Karnowski. That duo, which came off the bench last year, will be the best frontcourt of any of the mid-majors. You could probably make the argument for Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell as the most talented backcourt of any of the mid-majors as well.
We should probably stop calling Gonzaga a mid-major school, but since the Zags still play in the WCC, they qualify. And one of these years they’re going to finally get to the Final Four. Few recruits too much talent not to get there eventually.
Shaka Smart is 7-3 in his first 10 NCAA tournament games. Only nine active coaches that have coached at least 10 tournament games have a better winning percentage in the NCAA tournament, according to this list. All nine of those coaches are either in the Hall of Fame or will eventually be in the Hall of Fame.
Smart’s style works in the tournament. It’s a nightmare to prepare for because most teams haven’t faced that kind of full-court pressure all season, and it’s even more devastating to prepare for in the round of 32 or the Elite Eight when you only have one day to get ready.
VCU led the nation last year in steals per game (11.7) and turnover percentage (28.5—according to KenPom.com). They return four of their five best thieves, including Briante Weber, who averaged 2.7 steals in only 20.9 minutes per game. They also return their two leading scorers—Juvonte Reddic and Treveon Graham.
Smart is also adding an athletic big man in Terrance Shannon via transfer from Florida State. Shannon averaged 1.2 steals in 21 minutes per game last season and fits in perfectly at VCU. Weber will likely become a starter.
Every year Smart seems to figure out a way to force even more turnovers. Getting more minutes from Weber and adding Shannon could be the recipe next year.
Atlantic 10 teams, you have my sympathy.
Brad Stevens and Butler figured out a way to get back to the Final Four in 2011 even after losing two starters, including leading scorer Gordon Hayward.
Wichita State is losing two starters. Gregg Marshall is one of the best recruiters at the mid-major level and never has any trouble replacing talent with talent. Last year’s team included five new starters. What I’m saying here is don’t count out the Shockers.
Which mid-major has the best chance of reaching the Final Four in 2014?
Wichita State should also get a chance next season to navigate its way through the tournament with a higher seed. With Creighton leaving for the Big East, Wichita State has the potential to win the Missouri Valley Conference convincingly.
What will help in 2014 as well is tournament experience. Cleanthony Early proved during the tourney he’s a great scorer. Ron Baker proved he’s a great shooter. Fred VanVleet played plenty of meaningful minutes at point guard.
It will be pretty easy to pick a team with those pieces and that coach in your 2014 bracket.