Four and a half months without college basketball sends fanatics into a frenzy. The months of the off-season start off with compelling message board discussion topics that eventually devolve into questions like “Who is the greatest left handed shooting guard to wear high socks, short shorts and a headband.” I’m always intrigued by the topics that start off with “Best mid-major…”, but open the links to find that the schools that dominate those lists are the likes of Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV teams, John Calipari’s Memphis teams, and Rick Majerus’ Utah teams. When I finish reading threads like this I’m always disappointed, as I don’t see a mid-major in the group.
So what is a mid-major? It’s a question that nobody has been able to agree on a concrete definition. For some, a mid-major is any team that doesn’t play in one of the five biggest conferences. Others include basketball conferences like the AAC & the Big East, as teams like Georgetown and Connecticut clearly don’t recruit or play like scrappy underdogs.
The definition that makes the most sense to me is to add two groups that aren’t often included and create four groups: Power, High-Major, Mid-Major, and Low-Major. While conference realignment has blurred the lines between some conferences, the moves between conferences also help to show where those lines are.
The ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac 12, and SEC are the power conferences. Football fans know them as the “Power 5″, as they will be the five conferences that will make up most of the major bowl match-ups starting this season. These conferences regularly send several teams to the NCAA Tournament, and sending only one is considered a failure. I expect that when the dust settles from realignment the Big East will end up joining this category, as it has far too much history and basketball money to fall too far behind the power programs. The programs in the Big East all support basketball above all other sports, and would be unlikely to move to a conference that sponsors football.
Several conferences that are often called mid-majors don’t really fit the description. The Atlantic 10, Conference USA, Missouri Valley, and Mountain West all suffer from a lack of name programs that the power conferences have, but each of the four expects to send multiple teams to the tournament just about every year. The addition of BYU to the West Coast Conference lands them in this category as well. In stronger seasons, any of these conferences are capable of securing more bids than most of the Power Conferences, but as the C-USA and Missouri Valley found out in 2014, they can wind up with only one tournament bid as well.
I would also classify the American Athletic Conference as a high-major. While the presence of reigning NCAA Tournament Champion Connecticut would suggest that the AAC is a power conference, the fact is that UConn would accept an invite to a Power 5 conference if the offer were extended. This clearly puts the AAC a step below the Power 5 and the Big East, all of which would need a pretty dramatic domino effect to lose their place at the top of the college basketball pecking order.
True mid-major conferences generally send one team to the NCAA Tournament, but are capable of sending multiple teams without needing a once-in-a-generation talent or 30+ win team. All of the recent Cinderellas to make it to the Final Four—Butler, George Mason, and VCU—have done so from mid-major conferences and have since moved into more prestigious leagues. A great example of a mid-major league is the Mid-American Conference. Most of the teams in the MAC reside in unattractive television markets, and the conference is a member of the FBS for football. Combine these factors with the lack of a dominant program like Memphis, Creighton or Butler in basketball and you come up with a situation where the MAC has been able to avoid the instability that other conferences have suffered from during realignment.
Unlike the other conferences, it’s very improbable for low-majors to produce at-large worthy seasons. Outside of a Murray State team that went 31-2 and Davidson’s 2008 team led by current Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry, there hasn’t been a low-major to be seeded on the right side of the bubble in recent history. Even in the case of 2008 Davidson, a loss in the Southern Conference Tournament would have put the Wildcats in danger of being left out of the tournament.
The Atlantic Sun has produced the two most memorable Cinderella stories of the last two seasons in Florida Gulf Coast and Mercer. Both were able to knock off NCAA Tournament participants from the ACC during the regular season, but losses to conference foes took them out of at-large contention.
Mercer will begin play as a member of the Southern Conference starting this season, changing conferences in order to find a home for its newly-formed football team. Following Mercer’s departure, the Atlantic Sun will be left with 8 teams. Continued success from Florida Gulf Coast could cause the school to leave the A-Sun and put the conference in danger of becoming a casualty of realignment. The only place for it to bring in new teams is from Division 2, and those schools are subject to a waiting period before becoming post-season eligible. For most conferences, the result of realignment is a new crop of teams. For low-majors, it can be extinction.
Hopefully, this can help to bring some closure to the mid-major debate. The solution is to add two more groups, and realignment is a key to deciding where the lines are drawn. The AAC, while certainly not a mid-major, isn’t at the top of the pecking order and as a result isn’t a power conference. Meanwhile, “mid-majors” are actually in the middle of two groups, rather than being the name thrown on the 27 conferences that don’t dominate the college football side of Division 1. Here’s hoping that next offseason, I’ll be able to read all about 2011 Butler’s dominant run to the championship of the “Greatest Mid-Majors Ever” posts.