Ranking the 10 Greatest Mid-Major Teams in NCAA Basketball History

Jake Curtis@jakecurtis53Featured ColumnistMarch 3, 2013

Ranking the 10 Greatest Mid-Major Teams in NCAA Basketball History

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    The most difficult aspect of ranking mid-major teams is defining the term "mid-major."

    The strict definition of a mid-major team is any school that's not a member of one of the six major conferences (ACC, Big East, Pac-12, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12).

    We’ll adhere to that criterion, then limit our search to the years since the term “mid-major” was coined in 1977 by Jack Kvancz, then Catholic University's basketball coach.

    This notably eliminates independent schools, such as national champions Marquette (1977), Loyola-Chicago (1963) and Texas Western (1966). It also eliminates 1961 and ’62 NCAA champion Cincinnati out of the Missouri Valley Conference and 1955 and ’56 champion San Francisco from the West Coast Athletic Conference (now the WCC).

    The Dons would top our list were it not for the 1977 cutoff, but no significant delineation between power conferences and the rest of college basketball existed back then.

    With those parameters in mind, we ranked the top 10 mid-major teams in history. The two chief factors in determining a team's place were its final regular-season national ranking and its postseason results.

    We arbitrarily decided to take only the best team a given school produced.

10. George Mason 2006/Virginia Commonwealth 2011

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    Conference: Colonial Athletic Association

    Final regular-season AP ranking: Unranked

    NCAA tournament result: Final Four

    Star player: Jai Lewis, George Mason/Jamie Skeen, VCU

    It seems appropriate that George Mason and VCU should share the final spot.

    Although their overall season accomplishments may not warrant such a lofty spot, their runs to the Final Four from out of the Colonial Athletic Association represent the most startling postseason achievement.

    Neither won its conference tournament, and neither finished alone in first place in the CAA. In fact, VCU finished fourth in the standings, and its inclusion in the NCAA tournament was criticized by several analysts.

    The Rams, coached by Shaka Smart, had to play a play-in game as a No. 11 seed in 2011. They won five games, including an upset of No. 1 seed Kansas, before losing to Butler in the national semifinals. They finished 28-12.

    George Mason, also a No. 11 seed, was coached by current Miami coach Jim Larranaga in 2006. The Patriots won four games, beating No. 3 seed North Carolina and No. 1 seed Connecticut along the way. They lost to eventual champion Florida in the semifinals to finish 27-8.

9. Temple 1988

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    Conference: Atlantic 10

    Final regular-season AP ranking: 1

    NCAA tournament results: Elite Eight

    Star player: Mark Macon

    The 1988 Temple Owls were coached by John Chaney, and Mark Macon (second-team AP All-American) and Tim Perry were their standout players.

    Their only regular-season loss was a one-point defeat on the road against UNLV, and they beat North Carolina, which wound up ranked No. 7, by 17 points on the Tar Heels' home floor.

    The Owls earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and beat Lehigh, Georgetown and Richmond before losing to Duke by 10 points in the national quarterfinals.

    Temple finished with a 32-2 record. 

8. St. Joseph's 2004

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    Conference: Atlantic 10

    Final regular-season AP ranking: 5

    NCAA tournament result: Elite Eight

    Star player: Jameer Nelson

    The 2004 St. Joseph's Hawks were coached by colorful Phil Martelli, who was known for his one-liners as much as for his coaching.

    Guard Jameer Nelson was the AP national player of the year, and guard Delonte West was the team's other standout player.

    The Hawks were undefeated and ranked No. 1 heading into the Atlantic 10 tournament before losing to Xavier by 20 points. Those who do not consider conference tournaments part of the regular season claim the Hawks are the last team since 1991 to go through the regular season unbeaten.

    The Hawks received a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. They beat Liberty, Texas Tech and Wake Forest before losing to No. 2 seed Oklahoma State 64-62 when Nelson missed a last-second shot.

    St. Joseph's finished the season 30-2.

7. Utah 1998

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    Conference:Western Athletic Conference

    Final regular-season AP ranking: 7

    NCAA tournament result: National finalist

    Star player: Andre Miller

    The late Rick Majerus coached the 1998 Utes, who came close to winning a national title.

    Center Michael Doleac, a pre-med student, was the team's high scorer, but point guard Andre Miller was the team's star. Miller was named a third-team All-American by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association.

    After winning the WAC regular-season title, Utah lost to UNLV in the conference tournament. The Utes received a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament and beat San Francisco, Arkansas and West Virginia before beating No. 1 seeds Arizona and North Carolina in consecutive games to reach the finals.

    Utah led Kentucky by 10 points at halftime of the championship game and still led by four with less than six minutes left. However, the Utes tired and lost 78-69 to finish the season 30-4.

6. Butler 2010

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    Conference: Horizon League

    Final regular-season AP ranking: 12

    NCAA tournament results: National finalist

    Star player: Gordon Hayward

    The 2010 Butler Bulldogs were coached by Brad Stevens, and they got a little boost on this list because they got to the title game again in 2011 with many of the same players.

    The 2010 version was better, though, because it had versatile Gordon Hayward, whose half-court heave at the buzzer in the title game nearly produced a dramatic victory. Had that shot gone in, Butler would have beaten Duke by a point and would have become national champion. Instead, it bounced off the rim and Butler lost to the Blue Devils 61-59.

    Butler entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 5 seed and beat UTEP and Murray State before knocking off No. 1 seed Syracuse, No. 2 seed Kansas State and No. 3 seed Baylor to get to the Final Four. The Bulldogs defeated No. 5 seed Michigan State to reach the title game.

    Butler finished the season 33-5.

6A. Gonzaga 2013

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    Conference: West Coast Conference

    Current AP ranking: 2

    NCAA tournament result: Undetermined

    Star player: Kelly Olynyk

    The 2013 Gonzaga Bulldogs don't get an official spot on this list because their season is not over. Their success in the postseason will determine their ranking.

    However, they are a good bet to finish the regular season with a No. 1 AP ranking, so they warranted a place on the list at about this spot for now.

    Kelly Olynyk, who redshirted last season, is the team's All-American candidate. He had been a complementary player who played limited minutes in 2010-2011.

    Gonzaga's only losses were to Illinois at home and to Butler on the Bulldogs' home floor. The latter came after the Bulldogs stole an inbounds pass in the final seconds and scored at the buzzer for a one-point victory.

    Mark Few is the coach of the Bulldogs, who are 29-2.

5. Memphis 2008

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    Conference: Conference USA

    Final regular-season AP ranking: 2

    NCAA tournament result: National finalist

    Star player: Derrick Rose

    The 2008 Memphis Tigers were coached by John Calipari and very nearly captured a national title.

    Guard Chris Douglas-Roberts was the team's high scorer and was a first-team AP All-American. Freshman point guard Derrick Rose was only a third-team AP All-American selection, but, in retrospect, deserves to be considered the team's star.

    The Tigers beat Georgetown and Connecticut by double-digit margins during the regular season, and their only loss heading into the NCAA tournament was to Tennessee.

    Seeded No. 1 in the postseason, Memphis defeated Texas-Arlington, Mississippi State, Michigan State and Texas to get to the Final Four. It beat No. 1 seed UCLA by 15 points in the semifinals,

    Memphis led Kansas 60-51 with 2:12 left in the championship game, but free-throw shooting, a shortcoming all season, doomed the Tigers. Douglas-Roberts and Rose made only one of five free throws in the final 1:15, and Kansas' Mario Chalmers hit a three-pointer with 2.1 seconds left to send the game in overtime.

    Kansas ultimately won the game 75-68, and Memphis finished 38-2.

4. Louisville 1980

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    Conference: Metro Conference

    Final regular-season AP ranking: 2

    NCAA tournament result: Champion

    Star Player: Darrell Griffith

    Placing a team currently in the Big East comes with considerable reservations.

    However, in 1980, Louisville was in the Metro Conference, which, by the criteria outlined, constitutes a mid-major conference. That year, the Metro Conference consisted of Louisville, Virginia Tech, Memphis, Florida State, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Tulane.

    The 1980 Cardinals were known as The Doctors of Dunk and are credited with inventing the High Five.

    Guard Darrell Griffith was a first-team All-American and won the Wooden Award as national player of the year. DePaul's Mark Aguirre won most of the player of the year honors, however. 

    Louisville, coached by Denny Crum, lost to Utah, Illinois and Iona in the regular season, and it received a No. 2 seed and first-round bye in the 48-team 1980 NCAA tournament.

    In the postseason, the Cardinals defeated Kansas State and Texas A&M, both in overtime, before knocking off No. 1 seed LSU and Iowa to reach the title game. Louisville beat No. 8 seed UCLA, coached by Larry Brown, in the championship game, 59-54. 

    Louisville finished 33-3 in 1980. The Cardinals also won a national title in 1986, and they got to the Final Four in 1983, when they were ranked No. 2 in the final regular-season poll.

3. Massachusetts 1996

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    Conference: Atlantic 10

    Final regular-season AP ranking: 1

    NCAA tournament result: Final Four

    Star player: Marcus Camby

    The 1996 Massachusetts Minutemen later had their postseason results expunged because of NCAA violations. Nonetheless, they deserve this ranking based on their play on the court.

    John Calipari is the only coach with two teams on this list (2008 Memphis).

    Center Marcus Camby was selected by all reputable outlets as the national player of the year.

    The Minutemen opened the season with a 10-point win over Kentucky, which would wind up as the No. 2-ranked team in the country and would win the NCAA title. UMass started 26-0 before suffering its only regular-season loss to George Washington.

    The Minutemen beat Central Florida, Stanford, Arkansas and Georgetown to reach the Final Four. They lost 81-74 in the semifinals to Kentucky, which featured six players who would eventually become first-round NBA draft picks.

    UMass finished the season 35-2. 

2. Indiana State 1979

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    Conference: Missouri Valley

    Final regular-season AP ranking: 1

    NCAA tournament result: National finalist

    Star player: Larry Bird

    The 1979 Indiana State Sycamores probably represent the mid-major image better than anyone else on the list.

    The Sycamores were coached by Bill Hodges, who was promoted from assistant coach to head coach before the 1978-79 season started when head coach Bill King had a brain aneurysm.

    Carl Nix averaged 19.3 points, but the unquestioned star was Larry Bird. Bird had started his college career at Indiana but left soon after he arrived and enrolled at Indiana State.

    Bird led the 1979 Sycamores in scoring, averaging 28.3 points, and was a unanimous choice as national player of the year.

    Indiana State went through the regular season unbeaten, but the level of competition was suspect.

    In the NCAA tournament, Indiana State beat Virginia Tech and Oklahoma, then beat Arkansas by two points on Bob Heaton's shot at the buzzer. The Sycamores defeated DePaul by two points to get a berth in the national title game against Michigan State and Magic Johnson.

    Indiana State lost to the Spartans 75-64 in what is still the highest-rated televised college basketball game in history.

    Indiana State finished the season 33-1.

1. UNLV 1991

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    Conference: Big West

    Final regular-season AP ranking: 1

    NCAA tournament result: Final Four

    Star player: Larry Johnson

    Even though they did not win a national title, the 1991 UNLV Runnin' Rebels were among the best teams in college basketball history.

    Four of their starters were starters on the Rebels' 1990 NCAA championship team that beat Duke by 30 points in the title game.

    The 1991 Rebels were coached by Jerry Tarkanian and are the last team to go through the regular season unbeaten. That included a decisive 112-105 victory over No. 2 Arkansas on the Razorbacks' home court.

    UNLV forward Larry Johnson was the Naismith and Wooden national player of the year, while LSU's Shaquille O'Neal was the AP player of the year.

    Three of UNLV's 1991 starters were among the top 12 picks in the 1991 NBA draft: Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony.

    Cedric Ceballos, who had played against UNLV in 1990 while at Fullerton State, was in the NBA when he told me the 1991 UNLV team could be competitive with the worst NBA teams at the time.

    Overwhelming favorites to win the 1991 NCAA tournament, the Rebels rolled past Montana, Georgetown, Utah and Seton Hall to reach the semifinals.

    There they faced the Duke team they had beaten 103-73 in the previous year's title game. This time Duke pulled off the upset 79-77.

    It ended UNLV's 45-game winning streak and left its final record at 33-1.

    UNLV also got to the Final Four in 1987, when it finished the regular season ranked No. 2.