Gonzaga, a small school with a unique name that first entered the national conscience nearly two decades ago will be playing in their first Final Four tonight. The Bulldogs are the seventh team since 2006 to win their region and advance to the Final Four while playing in a ‘mid-major’ conference. For the most part, Gonzaga was seeded significantly higher than most of the other mid-major teams that advanced this far. While this is quite an achievement for Gonzaga, the Bulldogs do not have any mid-major company in the Final Four and were also the only mid-major still playing after the first two rounds of the tournament. Part of that is obviously because mid-majors are not as good, on average, as power/major conference teams, but it is also due to the fact they have a much harder time getting into the tournament provided they do not win their conference tournaments and garner an automatic bid. Before we delve into the plight of mid-major basketball programs, let’s define what a mid-major is.
Since 2011, the NCAA tournament has included 68 teams. Eight teams play ‘First Four’ (don’t call them play-in) games with the winners advancing to the ‘real’ tournament field of 64 teams. In seven seasons under the current format, fifteen conferences have received at least one at-large (i.e. not automatic) bid. The following table lists the fifteen conferences in order of the average number of at-large bids they have received each season. I also included the percentage of times each conference received at least one at-large bid and the average seed their at-large teams received.
Power Five football conferences (ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC) are all major conferences. Each has averaged at least three at-large bids per season and has garnered an at-large bid each year. The Big East, a conference that no longer exists in college football is also a power conference. While the membership has changed drastically since 2011, going from an amalgam of public and private universities with about half the members fielding an FBS team to a coalition of private Catholic universities with zero FBS playing members, the Big East has consistently put multiple teams in the NCAA tournament. Since Extreme Makeover: Big East Edition began in 2014, the conference has averaged 4.5 at-large bids per season compared to 8.3 from 2011-2013. While that may seem like a significant drop, keep in mind the new Big East has only ten members while the old Big East had sixteen.
After the Power Six, the Atlantic-10 and the American Athletic Conference are a notch below. Both conferences have received at least one at-large bid every season since 2011 (the American has only existed since 2014) and the Atlantic-10 has only received one fewer at-large bid in that time frame than the SEC. The Atlantic-10 lacks the heft at the top that the Power Six conferences have, but they are deep and consistently send multiple teams to the NCAA tournament. As for the American, while it is new on the college basketball scene, it does feature four teams with basketball pedigrees (Cincinnati, Connecticut, Memphis, and Temple) as well as a fusion of teams with historical success (Houston), an up-and-comer (SMU), and a mixture of everything in between (East Carolina, Tulsa, UCF, etc).
Outside of the Pseudo Duo in the American and the Atlantic-10, mid-major basketball is pretty much confined to three conferences: the Missouri Valley, the Mountain West, and Gonzaga’s home, the West Coast Conference. Each conference has garnered at least one at-large bid four or more times in the past seven seasons. However, the recent trend has not been positive. Here are the at-large bids that have been earned by teams not in the Power Six or Pseudo Duo conferences over the past seven years.
Why have mid-major teams been squeezed out of the tournament over the past few seasons? You can blame football, and more specifically conference expansion. It began with a small ripple in the middle of the aughts when the ACC grabbed Boston College, Miami, and Virginia Tech from the Big East. The Big East responded by raiding Conference USA, Conference USA took some teams from the WAC and the MAC, the WAC stole some teams from the Sun Belt, and the MAC and Sun Belt pretty much stood pat. This is an abbreviated retelling, but that’s most of the important stuff. Aside from a few teams joining FBS, things were quiet for about five seasons, but then there was a seismic shift.
Beginning with the 2011 season, the Big 10, Pac-10, and SEC brought the Big 12 to the brink of extinction. The Big 10 added Nebraska, the Pac-10 added Colorado and also called up Utah from the Mountain West to get to twelve teams, and the SEC poached Missouri and Texas A&M. To survive, the Big 12 added West Virginia from the Big East and called up TCU from the Mountain West. Elsewhere in the major conference landscape, the Big 10 eventually added Maryland from the ACC and Rutgers from the Big East, while the ACC further depleted the Big East by adding Louisville, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse. The Big East again bolstered their membership by grabbing school further down the food chain from Conference USA. The Big East eventually ceased to exist after the 2012 season, but was rechristened as the American Athletic Conference. Conference USA again seized teams from the Sun Belt, the Sun Belt acquired teams from the WAC, as did the Mountain West who also lost BYU to independence. With no pipeline to replenish their lost members, the WAC went extinct and exists solely as a basketball conference now.
While these changes were driven by football, they also had and continue to have a profound impact on college basketball. When football teams change conferences, the basketball programs often move as well. While college football only has ten conferences (formerly eleven when expansion began) at the FBS level, college basketball has 32 leagues in its ecosystem. Changes at the top trickle down to the mid and low-major conferences. For some teams, this has been beneficial as they have been called up or graduated to major conferences and seen their profile expand. However, one needn't ask Kirk Cameron what life is like for those left behind.
When programs graduate to better leagues, it makes it even harder for the remaining mid-majors to garner at large bids. Take Illinois State for example. This season, the Red Birds lost just two games after Christmas and ranked in the top-50 of KenPom and the RPI when the selection committees chose the teams for the NCAA tournament. Yet, the Red Birds were one of the first teams left out, thanks in part to the relative weakness of the Missouri Valley. Wichita State was the only 'valuable' team the Red Birds were able to play once the conference season started. However, a few years ago, the Red Birds would have had another opportunity for a quality win. Creighton, a small Jesuit school in Omaha, with a solid basketball history over the past twenty years was a member of the Missouri Valley for nearly 40 years, but left after the 2013 season to join the new Big East. The Blue Jays earned a six seed in this year's NCAA tournament and would have provided at least two opportunities for a quality win, and perhaps more importantly, no opportunities for a bad loss, to the Red Birds. Further compounding the issue is that the Missouri Valley elected to replace Creighton to keep their membership at ten teams. Their replacement, Loyola-Chicago, has averaged a KenPom finish of 165 while Creighton has averaged a finish of 41 in the new Big East. Not only have Missouri Valley teams lost a chance at a quality win, they have added an opportunity for a bad loss.
The Missouri Valley is not the only conference that has lost good programs and with them opportunities for at-large bids. Remember Butler? The Bulldogs made back-to-back national finals as members of the Horizon. While the Horizon did not send multiple teams to the tournament in either year that Butler advanced to the Final Four, the Bulldogs would have received an at-large bid had they stumbled in the conference tournament. Where is Butler now? The Bulldogs are officially big time. They joined Creighton in the new Big East in 2014 and share a conference with traditional powers like Georgetown, Marquette, and Villanova. The Horizon could have used a second quality team in 2016. Valparaiso, was 26-6 and in the KenPom top-40 when the NCAA tournament began, but with Butler no longer in the conference, the Crusaders did not have an opportunity for a quality win once conference play started. When they lost in the conference tournament, you know how this story ends. Valparaiso was relegated to the NIT, where they advanced to the Final Four.
In 2011, the Colonial sent three teams to the NCAA tournament, and one famously advanced to the Final Four. All three of those teams are no longer in the conference. George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth are now in the Atlantic-10 and Old Dominion made a lateral move to Conference USA to accommodate their football team. The Colonial sent multiple teams to the NCAA tournament in 2006, 2007, and 2011, and nearly garnered an at-large bid in 2012 (Drexel), but have not come close to producing an at-large team since. To replenish their membership, the Colonial raided the Southern Conference, taking the College of Charleston and Elon. This resulted in a weakened Colonial and a weakened Southern Conference. Speaking of the Southern, while the conference has never produced an at-large team, their odds of doing so now are infinitesimal as their best and most famous program, Davidson, is now in the Atlantic-10.
The Mountain West, which sent multiple teams to the tournament every season from 2002-2015, including five in 2013, has been a single bid league for the past two years. Part of that can be blamed on losing solid basketball programs like Utah and BYU for football reasons. Conference USA, a league that has seen its champion win a game in the tournament each of the past three years, has not received an at-large bid since 2012. This season, Middle Tennessee State, a team in the top-50 of KenPom and winner of two games against SEC teams in the regular season, would likely have been left out had they stumbled in the Conference USA tournament. The primary reason is that only one other conference team ranks in the KenPom top-100. Former Conference USA teams like Houston, SMU, and UCF ranked in the top-100 this season, but now play in the American Athletic Conference. Of course, Middle Tennessee State is only in Conference USA because that league raided their former home, the Sun Belt.
And who can forget about WAC basketball? When the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, the WAC sent multiple teams to the tournament for 18 consecutive years and produced a national finalist in 1998. However, the conference has received just one at-large bid in the last decade. The Mountain West formed when half of the WAC split at the end of last century and dealt the league a football death blow when they raided them a few seasons ago. Now the WAC houses teams like Grand Canyon and Cal State Bakersfield that were not playing DI basketball ten years ago as well as itinerants with nowhere else to go.
Conference expansion, primarily driven by football, has resulted in strong mid-major programs moving up to major or pseudo-major conferences. The mid-major leagues have responded by restocking their leagues with low-major programs. The resulting talent drains mean deserving mid-major programs do not have additional opportunities to improve their strength of schedule once conference play begins. This equates to more at-large bids for major and pseudo-major conferences. When the college basketball season begins, you can pretty much count on one hand the number of mid-major programs with realistic at-large aspirations (Gonzaga, St Mary's, and Wichita State). And with Wichita State potentially moving to the American, the number could shrink even further. To me, this is a bad development for college basketball. Southern Cal is not my idea of a March 'Cinderella'. I'll hold out hope that as the selection committee uses more advanced metrics, deserving mid-majors will start getting the benefit of the doubt.