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It is time to ditch the `mid-major' label

March 25, 2007|Nancy Armour | Associated Press

ST. LOUIS — For too long, the Butlers, Gonzagas and George Masons of the world have been dismissed as "mid-majors" -- cute, cuddly teams who'll be sent on their way soon enough.


Anybody who watched Southern Illinois give Kansas all it could handle knows these teams are every bit as good as the big boys. It's time we ditched that "mid-major" label. And it's long past time we got rid of the patronizing attitude that teams can't really be good unless they're playing in a power conference.

"People want to put into boxes what this league is and what that league is and this is who you are. You're a high-major, you're a mid-major," Florida coach Billy Donovan said.

"I think that's something that's not reality."

Go back 20, 25 years, and sure, teams in the Big East, ACC, Big Ten, SEC and Pac-10 played heads and shoulders above everybody else. They had the best players and coaches, and when it came time for the tournament, they beat up on any of the little guys who crossed their paths.

When Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant decided to blow off college and go straight to the NBA, they not only struck a blow for independence-minded teenagers, but for all the little guys in college hoops.

After years of the Dukes, the Carolinas and the UCLAs having rosters so loaded with talent it seemed as iftype:bold,italic; they were growing blue chippers out back, the best players weren't automatically going to college. If they did, they didn't often stay all four years. The top schools weren't exactly hurting for stars and difference makers, but a lot more water was added to the talent pool.

Add in the NCAA's 1992 decision to reduce the number of scholarships from 15 to 13, and the smaller schools and conferences gradually closed the gap on the basketball factories.

"You've seen there being not such a difference as maybe there once was," Donovan said. "There's a lot of really good programs."

The knock on the mid-majors is their conferences aren't as strong top to bottom as the power conferences. To a degree, that's true. But the company they keep doesn't make the team. Good players -- good teams -- can be found anywhere.

Little Valparaiso stunned Mississippi in 1998 thanks to Bryce Drew's unbelievable 3-pointer, and the 13th-seeded Crusaders went on to the round of 16. A year later, Gonzaga went one better, losing to eventual champion Connecticut in the regional finals.

From then on, March Madness has run amok. Each year, a couple of "mid-majors" knock off a big-name team they supposedly can't shag rebounds for. Kansas, Duke, UConn, UCLA -- all former national champions, all losers at the hands of a little guy.

Last year, George Mason went all the way to the Final Four, and it wasn't a fluke. The Patriots knocked off Michigan State and North Carolina -- half the Final Four the previous year -- in the first weekend, then beat UConn, a team some expected to win it all, in the regional finals.

Kansas knew full well Southern Illinois was going to drag it down with good, old-fashioned defense Thursday night. Yet even with a run-all-day offense and roster filled with NBA prospects, the Jayhawks were stuck playing Southern Illinois' game.

Kansas pulled out a 61-58 victory, but it was one of the closest in its 14-game winning streak and certainly the ugliest.

"I know how good we are," Southern Illinois' Jamaal Tatum said afterward. "I don't know what we're going to have to do to get that attention. Hopefully we'll get it sometime soon, because everybody on this team deserves it.

"We put in a lot of work. We work in the summer. We are up early. We condition hard. This team deserves a lot of respect."

They're not the only ones.

Butler, which played top-seeded Florida on Friday night, beat Notre Dame, Indiana, Tennessee, Gonzaga and Purdue during the regular season, then beat Maryland in the second round. Winthrop had only four losses going into the tournament -- North Carolina, Maryland, Wisconsin and Texas A&M -- and beat Notre Dame before falling to Oregon.

Drexel, which didn't even make the NCAA tournament, won road games at Villanova and Syracuse. And on and on.

"We really don't address labels at all until someone asks us," Butler coach Todd Lickliter said. "We're Butler University, the Bulldogs. We play the game the way we want to play it, to the best of our abilities."

So let's drop the mid-major tag and call these schools what they really are: Good teams.

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