Florida Gulf Coast. Creighton. LaSalle. Wichita State. Harvard.
Not exactly the names that flow off the tip of your tongue when asked to name the powers in the world of college basketball. They are, however, prime examples of mid-major programs that on the right night, and with the right level of confidence have the ability to knock off some of the bigger names the game knows or has ever known.
The first two rounds of this year’s 2013 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament has proven one thing: no longer are mid-major programs an after-thought, or a cute reminder that an occasional Cinderella can make a deep tournament run. What they are, instead, are a group of programs that are building their success through different means than the NBA-focused, one-and-done culture suggests that they should.
And it’s working.
There are several reasons that suggest why mid-majors are slowly starting to tip the balance of March Madness and are winning more games from one year to the next, and in convincing fashion at that.
There’s More Parity Than Ever Before
The simple fact is that there are more talented players in college basketball than ever before. This is a testament to the quality of developmental programs across the country, but also, as often as it is indicted as being a core issue, to the value players get from the summer AAU circuit where they are consistently playing against the best talent the country has to offer.
When the guys from Florida Gulf Coast stepped on the floor with with the Georgetown Hoyas last night, they didn’t see an unconquerable Goliath to their David, they saw a team with weaknesses that could be exposed. The players for FGCU are Division I basketball players. They have the ability and right to be playing on the level they play at.
The divide which was once so massive between the talent levels of the major programs and their mid-major counterparts is growing slimmer by the day, and outcomes like those we’ve seen over the first two days of March Madness are proof positive.
Major Programs Are Still Taking Mid-Majors Too Lightly
The ol’ “name-brand effect” is still having far too great an impact on major programs like Georgetown, Pittsburgh, and the like as they take to the floor against schools that may not have the name brands they are accustomed to during conference play, but that generic brand, if you will, is just as powerful.
There’s this shift from “Oh we can just show up and win..” to “Oh, s***, what is going on here?” that you can see in the eyes of bigger programs that under-estimate their opponents. Coaches can preach until they turn blue in the face that every 0pponent is worthy, but the players have to buy in — and something tells me, with what we’ve seen in recent days, that buy-in might be much easier to gain going forward.
After all these guys are 18-22 year olds — not professionals. Let’s remember that for a second.
The NBA One-and-Done Culture is Backfiring
Since the NBA outlawed high school players going directly to the pros from preps, the One-and-Done Culture has emerged among the major programs in college basketball. Programs like the Kentucky Wildcats, Texas Longhorns, North Carolina Tar Heels and others have become nothing more than a temporary holding ground for the country’s top players as they play a single season of college ball biding their time before moving on to big paychecks.
While this culture is a temporary benefit for the larger programs, the long-term implications aren’t so sunny. The mid-major model of recruiting players that will play together as classes for four or five years and will have their best chance at a deep tournament run as a senior-laden squad — likely with five senior starters — is where the balance is starting to be tipped.
Florida Gulf Coast is the exception to this rule — starting several freshmen and sophomores — but teams like Wichita State and Creighton are senior-laden and the experience shines through. Sure, the talent level can be extreme on teams that perpetuate the one-and-done culture, but the result is often fractured chemistry.
Fractured chemistry doesn’t win games.
In simplest terms, the term mid-major is constantly evolving and now means something much different than it did when the Gonzaga Bulldogs first entered the scene a decade ago.
Let’s hope the success these teams are seeing causes a paradigm shift in college basketball making the game once again about team-building, chemistry and togetherness– although I doubt it will.