Chalk one up for the big boys. Or, rather, chalk up 14.
That’s how many major conference teams are still alive after the first week of the NCAA Tournament.
The Sweet 16 is pretty sweet indeed if you’re not a mid-major school. Of the 30 mid-majors who began the tournament, only San Diego State and Dayton remain. That leads to the inevitable questions the big conference presidents and athletic directors will ask all offseason: Do the mid-majors even belong in the tourney at all?
Was the Tournament Selection Committee right to avoid Green Bay? Were they justified to ignore Southern Mississippi? Did Louisiana Tech deserve to be relegated to the NIT?
How could they have possibly done any better than New Mexico, George Washington, Tulsa, St. Joe’s or Xavier, they’ll say. Those teams were granted entry and they failed to impress. Why should they let in teams with slightly less impressive resumes?
Of course, I say that would be incredibly shortsighted. No. 11 seed Dayton made it to the Sweet 16, and they’re currently the best story of the entire tournament. Previously, the tourney’s best story was No. 12 North Dakota State taking down No. 5 Oklahoma. Prior to that, it was No. 14 Mercer beating No. 3 Duke. Before any of us even sat down to dinner Thursday night, the story was No. 12 Harvard beating No. 5 Cincinnati.
Those of us who sympathize with the small guy would argue the even bigger story was how perfect a game the most storied program in the history of college basketball had to be to end Wichita State‘s perfect season. Kentucky played what was easily their best game of the season, giving us what has arguably been the best game of the tournament, and still had to survive a missed last-second shot to get past the champions of the Missouri Valley Conference. Wichita absolutely was the real deal, and it wouldn’t have shocked me to see them in the Final Four a second straight year.
San Diego State is now the one big name left. Coming into the Big Dance, they were justifiably seeded No. 4 in the West Region, and they’ve managed to hold serve through two games. The Aztecs held off an impressive New Mexico State team and overpowered North Dakota State in the Round of 32. Unfortunately, they have No. 1 Arizona in front of them. It won’t be easy, but the two teams have already faced off earlier this season with SDSU dropping a nine-point game to the Wildcats at home. A win would reward them with either Wisconsin or Baylor in the Elite Eight.
For Dayton, a slightly easier path exists. The Flyers play No. 10 seed Stanford, which was one of five teams with mediocre 10-8 records in the Pac 12. If they continue their Cinderella run, they’ll see either Florida or UCLA. Both Dayton and San Diego State will certainly have earned their Final Four ticket if they make it that far, and in this era of parity in college basketball there’s no reason they can’t pull it off. In recent years, Wichita State, Virginia Commonwealth, George Mason and Butler have all shown it can be done, which is why we should never underestimate the power the mid-majors have this time of year. To keep them out of the conversation would undermine what the NCAA Tournament is all about. And I, for one, am not willing to risk that. Are you?