If the Slipper Fits: Mid-Major Madness in the NCAA Tournament

Jon LeachContributor IApril 1, 2010

SALT LAKE CITY - MARCH 27:  Head coach Brad Stevens of the Butler Bulldogs celebrates with teammates after defeating the Kansas State Wildcats during the west regional final of the 2010 NCAA men's basketball tournament at the Energy Solutions Arena on March 27, 2010 in Salt Lake City, Utah.  (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Everyone loves an upset in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

It seems every year you have one friend who will pick all the upsets and pray that some of them may actually pan out.

Well, if you did that for this year’s tournament, you may have done some damage in your pools.

Who would have thought that the magic of Murray State would drive out Vanderbilt in the first round? Or that a bunch of Rhodes Scholars from an Ivy League school would truly become tournament road warriors?      

Every year the tournament is laden with teams from the “power conferences,” like the Big East, Big Ten, ACC, Big 12, SEC, and depending on the year, the Pac-10. However, this year witnessed the emergence and fight from “mid-major” conferences like the A-10, Horizon League, Mountain West, and the West Coast Conference (WCC).

Overall, 20 “mid-major” teams made the tournament by winning the regular season title or postseason tournament.

Nine more teams were chosen as an “at-large” bid, meaning that 29 teams, or 44.6 percent (29 of 65), of the tournament are “mid-major” teams. These mid-majors weren’t one-and-doners either; 35.0 percent of those teams (10 of 29) won their first round games over teams like Florida (SEC), Vanderbilt (SEC), and Georgetown (Big East), with other teams taking their opponents to the brink.

Take the Robert Morris University Colonials, for example, from the Northeast Conference, where in a given year their toughest in-conference game is St. Francis NY or Quinnipiac, which are not your typical household names.

This year, however, the small group of Colonials almost shocked the world by nearly taking out one of the year’s best teams in the country, losing by three in overtime.

The outstanding play of Karon Abraham proved that these athletes who are sometimes written off as throwaway players in terms of recruiting can actually come out and overshadow the likes of Scottie Reynolds from Villanova.

The reputation of these small teams is growing thanks to unforeseen wins in March. Take the No. 5 seed Butler Bulldogs, who, picked by experts to lose to a very overrated University of Texas-El Paso team, are considered to be a “mid-major.” People who slept on this fifth-seeded underdog forget that four of Butler's five starters are averaging 10 points or higher per game.

They have passed every challenge they have faced, even knocking off perennial favorite Syracuse (No. 1 seed) in the Sweet 16. Butler has gone on to push itself into its first Final Four behind stellar defense and the outstanding play of sophomore star Gordon Hayward.

The Bulldogs are the first Horizon League team to reach the Final Four, which is significant for a conference usually known for a big upset, such as when Cleveland State was victorious over Wake Forest in 2009.

Butler finally has a shot, on April 3, when they will be on the national stage to show what they can do against the “big boys,” as they face fellow No. 5 seed and last year’s national runner-up Michigan State. Regardless of the result, either team will be the first No. 5 seed to make the national championship since the 2001-02 Indiana Hoosiers lost to the No. 1 seed Maryland Terrapins by eight.  

Say Butler pulls off the upset of the year and takes it all the way; what’s the next step? I say the bigger conferences should begin to extend invitations to the smaller schools to join the larger conferences.

Think about it: Richmond, who was a No. 7 seed in the tournament, would join the ACC to play Duke and North Carolina twice a year. How about Butler to the Big Ten to make a local rivalry between Indiana and themselves or set up a Final Four rematch with Michigan State?

If this tournament is any indication, the “mid-majors” have proven they can play with the big boys in the NCAA postseason; why not let them prove themselves in the regular season as well? Sure, the first couple years the transition won’t be as historic as I am painting it, but down the road, the world of college sports will be better if this happens.