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College Basketball: 5 Programs That Have Outgrown the Mid-Major Label

George PeckContributor IIDecember 22, 2016

College Basketball: 5 Programs That Have Outgrown the Mid-Major Label

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    In college basketball, and all college sports for that matter, there are six power conferences: the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and the SEC. These conferences are considered to be the BCS conferences, or the Big Six.

    The teams in the BCS conferences have a lot going for them: They generally receive the most national exposure, have the most money to spend on athletics and therefore land the best recruits.

    So that leaves all the other conferences in America, 25 to be exact, in the non-BCS category. These conferences, and the teams within these conferences have been labeled mid-majors. Many consider the relatively unknown conferences to be low-major conferences.

    The NCAA does not officially recognize the term mid-major, as they consider all 31 conferences to be major conferences. Of course the NCAA makes this statement so they seem unbiased, but in reality the BCS conferences are favored greatly.

    Mid-majors have many challenges they must deal with in order to have similar success to a major program. Mid-majors struggle to schedule games with major teams because major teams for the most part have no desire to play a mid-major, especially not on the road.

    Many mid-major teams have to win their conference tournament, or they will not make the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, plain and simple. That’s just the way it is. Hopefully, with the NCAA tournament’s recent expansion to a 68-team field, more mid-major teams will have a chance to make the cut.

    College basketball is full of parity. Each year in the NCAA tournament a David slays a Goliath. The little guy beats the big guy. Many of these teams unfortunately are one-hit wonders, and they fall back into obscurity.

    But, it needs to be realized the little guy is getting bigger. The gap between a major program and mid-major program is shrinking. The Final Four this past season consisted of Connecticut, Kentucky, VCU (a team many said did not deserve to make the field) and Butler. That is two, count them two mid-major teams in the Final Four.

    That’s enough of the pity party. A number of mid-major programs have overcome these challenges and found consistent success. Here are five programs that have shattered any tie to the label “mid-major." 

5. UNLV

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    The UNLV Runnin’ Rebels are one of the most storied programs in the history of college basketball. Unlike the other programs on the list, UNLV had its most success in the mid-70s, 80s, and early 90s.

    Under the tutelage of the great Jerry Tarkanian UNLV made four Final Four appearances. The 1989-90 Runnin’ Rebels are still considered one of the best teams in the history of college basketball.

    With greats such as Larry Johnson, Greg Anthony and Stacey Augmon, the Runnin’ Rebels defeated Duke to win the national championship. The 1989-90 UNLV team is the last team from a non-BCS conference to have won a national championship.

    The next season, however, Duke got revenge, handing UNLV its only loss of the season in the Final Four.

    After the 1990-91 season things took a turn for the worse. Jerry Tarkanian was suspected of committing a number of rules violations and was forced to step down. UNLV had gone through a number of coaches before they landed Lon Kruger in 2004.

    Under Kruger, the Runnin’ Rebels had made the NCAA tournament four of the last five years. They were able to make a run to the Sweet 16 in 2007. Kruger left for Oklahoma after the 2010-11 season.

    UNLV replaced Kruger with Dave Rice, a former player on the championship team of 1989-90. Rice has brought back the style of play Jerry Tarkanian's teams had. This team brings an up-tempo, high-energy product to the floor. The Runnin’ Rebels will run you up and down the floor and pressure you to death.

    Rice and his Runnin’ Rebel team have impressed so far. Beginning the season unranked, UNLV entered the Top 25 with a big-time upset of then No.1 North Carolina. That win alone shows how special this team can be

    The Runnin’ Rebels currently stand at 8-1 just outside the Top 25, having lost at Wichita State. With this new energy Rice has brought to the program, UNLV is primed to shine on the big stage once again. 

4. Memphis

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    The Memphis Tigers have been the class of Conference USA since its inception in 1995. After the big-time hire of John Calipari in 2000, the Tigers saw unprecedented success.

    No matter what your opinion of Calipari, you cannot deny his ability to recruit. Calipari drew the likes of Chris Douglas-Roberts, Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans to play for Memphis during his tenure.  

    With very talented teams Calipari led Memphis to an NCAA-record four consecutive 30-win seasons from 2005-2009. In the same four-year span the Tigers made it to a Sweet 16, a couple of Elite Eights and a Final Four.

    The 2007-08 Tiger team finished with 38 wins and made it to the finals of the NCAA tournament, where they fell to the Kansas Jayhawks. It should be noted that the NCAA vacated all of Memphis’ 2007-08 wins due to infractions involving a fraudulent SAT score from Derrick Rose, as well as illegal funds provided to Rose’s brother, Reggie.  

    When Calipari hit the road for Kentucky in 2009, Memphis stayed in-house and hired Josh Pastner, a former assistant to Calipari. Pastner, at just 34 years of age, has brought a new energy to the Memphis program. He is widely accepted as one of the best recruiters in all of college basketball.

    Pastner has already brought in two top-10 recruiting classes and led the Tigers to the first round of the NCAA tournament in the 2010-11 campaign.

    The Tigers have gotten off to a shaky start this season, losing to a ranked Michigan squad, and Georgetown. It’s no time to panic, though. Memphis is still ranked 21st. This team is still young: The three top scorers are two sophomores and a freshman.

    It looks like Memphis has found a keeper in Pastner. The challenge will be convincing him to stay when those power conference teams come calling, and you know they will. The Tigers have got off to a good start, extending Pastner’s contract through the 2015-16 season.

3. Gonzaga

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    The Gonzaga Bulldogs have consistently brought great teams to the hardwood. Many consider Gonzaga to be the closest thing to a major power in a mid-major conference.

    Mark Few, one of the most successful and renowned coaches in all of college basketball, took the head coaching position at Gonzaga in 1999. In a rare case of a collegiate coach showing loyalty, Few has remained at Gonzaga for 10-plus years now.

    Under Few, the Bulldogs have completely dominated the West Coast Conference, winning the last 11 WCC regular season championships. Gonzaga has also made it to every NCAA tournament since Few took over. How about that for consistency?

    In Few’s first year, Gonzaga made a Cinderella run to the Elite Eight, the farthest the school has ever gone. That really put Gonzaga on the map. Unfortunately, since that run Gonzaga has not been back to the Elite Eight. However, they have made four Sweet 16 appearances, the most recent in 2009.

    Gonzaga is definitely capable of making it back to the Elite Eight, and possibly even farther. It would not be outrageous to say that Gonzaga has underachieved in the NCAA tournament. The Bulldogs have had some very talented teams, but it is not easy to go far in the NCAA tournament no matter how talented a team is.

    Maybe this is the year. Gonzaga is 5-1, coming off a loss at Illinois. Led by 7’0” Senior Robert Sacre, the Bulldogs will face tough competition over the next month including: Michigan State, Arizona and Xavier. These games will certainly prepare them for conference play and beyond. 

2. Xavier

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    The Xavier Musketeers basketball program truly has maintained a tradition of excellence. The Xavier program has been what many call a stepping stone program for coaches: Skip Prosser left for Wake Forest, Thad Matta left for Ohio State and most recently Sean Miller left for Arizona.

    Now, with Chris Mack at the helm, Xavier will look to build on its recent success. The Musketeers compete in the Atlantic Ten conference, considered to be one of the best conferences outside of the Big Six.

    Some, including myself, would even say the Atlantic Ten deserves to be considered among the Big Six conferences in college basketball. Xavier has won the regular season conference championship each of the last five seasons.

    The Musketeers have done a fair share of damage in March as well. They have made nine of the last 10 NCAA tournaments. In 2008 Xavier made the Elite Eight, their second in five years, the other coming in 2004. Following that run, the Musketeers made the Sweet 16 in 2009 and in 2010.

    This program is hungrier than ever to make its first Final Four. Coming off a first-round exit in the NCAA tournament last season, Xavier returns the bulk of their lineup. Xavier’s Tu Holloway (a preseason First-Team All-American) and Mark Lyons make up one of the best backcourts in the nation.

    Holloway has shown the ability to make big shots late in games time and time again. This could come in handy when March rolls around.  

    The Musketeers just cracked the top 10 by being ranked eighth in the nation after come-from-behind victories against Vanderbilt and Purdue. Much like Gonzaga, Xavier certainly does not need to make a Final Four run to prove it's a legitimate power, but it wouldn’t hurt. 

1. Butler

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    The Butler Bulldogs have shocked the nation not once, but twice. The Bulldogs have reached the national championship in the last two NCAA tournaments, coming up short in both appearances.

    In the 2010 national championship game the Bulldogs Gordon Hayward launched a half-court shot at the buzzer that nearly banked in, but it clanked off the rim, and Duke won in dramatic fashion 61-59.

    Butler, coached by Brad Stevens, plays in the Horizon League. Stevens became the head coach in 2007, and was the second-youngest coach in all of college basketball at that time. Stevens has had about as much success as a young coach could ever dream of.

    Butler has won the Horizon League and made the NCAA tournament each of the last five seasons. As before mentioned, Butler has made the national championship the past two seasons. Stevens became the youngest coach ever to make two Final Fours.

    At just 35 years of age Stevens would clearly be one of the most sought-after young coaches out there. Stevens’ unwavering poise has been noticed. Lucky for Butler, Stevens has signed a contract extension through the 2021-22 season. It wouldn’t be the first time a coach has not fulfilled his contract if Stevens bolted, but this has to give Butler fans some comfort.

    It’s really a shame Butler did not take home the trophy in at least one of the two national championships. Who knows how long it will be before Butler can make it back? There are countless schools that have never even made it to a Final Four.

    This year looks to be the inevitable down year for the Bulldogs. The Butler squad this year has experience, but lacks the talent of previous years. Matt Howard, the do-it-all big man, graduated, and Shelvin Mack chose to forego his senior season for the NBA.  guys were the clear leaders of last year’s squad.

    Butler is off to a 4-4 start, not exactly what the record of a championship-caliber team should look like. This Butler team has to deal with championship expectations. Is this realistic? Probably not, but with success comes expectations and pressure. One thing is for sure: There is no better man to handle the pressure than Brad Stevens.

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