That UCF and Alabama chose March 18 to get passive-aggressive toward each other again was fitting. For one thing, it further proved anything (in this case, a women’s NIT game) can be fodder for a college football argument.
More importantly, it happened during a weekend that saw:
- America East champ UMBC demolish ACC champ Virginia,
- MAC champ Buffalo blow out Pac-12 champ Arizona,
- WCC champ Gonzaga beat the Big Ten’s Ohio State,
- MWC champ Nevada beat Texas and 2 seed Cincinnati,
- And Missouri Valley champ Loyola-Chicago beat Miami and Tennessee ...
... all of which made college sports’ treatment of non-power teams that much more stark.
The College Football Playoff is four years old, and the 64-team basketball tournament is more than 30 years old, and we still can’t figure out how to handle mid-majors.
In football, 2017 UCF went unbeaten and beat an Auburn team that had defeated both of the teams that played for the national title. Yet the Knights ranked no better than No. 12 in the CFP and had no hope of a shot, despite non-power Boise State (2006 and 2009), Utah (2004 and 2008), and TCU (2010) teams going unbeaten and winning BCS bowls.
In 2018’s NCAA tournament, UMBC and company joined Yale, Little Rock, and Stephen F. Austin in 2016; Georgia State and UAB in 2015; Dayton, Harvard, and North Dakota State in 2014; La Salle and FGCU in 2013, and so on.
Gonzaga made the title game in 2017. Butler did the same in 2010 and 2011. VCU made the Final Four in 2011. George Mason did so in 2006. Hell, Memphis’ 2008 run to the title game qualified as mid-major success.
When given the spotlight, mid-majors frequently shine.
In football, they went 6-3 in BCS bowls between 2004-13 (5-2 when not condescendingly pitted against each other) and are 3-1 in New Year’s Six bowls.
In the NCAA tournament, they not only pull upsets as lower seeds, they also live up to their rare high seeds as well as power-conference teams do to their common ones.
Over the 10 years between 2008-17, mid-major programs lived up to top-eight seeds — a No. 1 seed making the Final Four, a No. 2 seed making the Elite Eight, a No. 3-4 seed making the Sweet 16, a No. 5-8 seed making the second round — 54 percent of the time, the exact same percentage as power-conference teams.
Knowing they carry their weight, then, I have a proposal.
You know I’m not above pulling ideas from European soccer. Here’s one that could be easier to implement than promotion and relegation.
For European club competitions, UEFA applies club coefficients to determine how many tournament spots different leagues have earned. It involves a point system — X points for a win, Y points for advancing in tournaments, etc.
We could do something like that in college sports, couldn’t we? For illustration, I looked at the last five years of NCAA tournament and NIT results and awarded the following:
- 2 points for each NCAA tournament victory,
- 1 bonus point for reaching the Elite Eight, another for the Final Four, another for the championship game, and another for winning it,
- 1 point for each NIT victory,
- And 0.5 bonus points for reaching the NIT semifinals, plus another 0.5 for reaching the final, and another 0.5 for winning it.
If we used a basic formula like that, mid-majors would get more tourney spots.
Over the last five years, that would have resulted in 649.5 points for teams in the six basketball power conferences (160 for the ACC, 136 for the Big Ten, 97 for the SEC, 88 for the Big East, 87.5 for the Pac-12, and 81 for the Big 12) and 259 for the others (led by 45.5 for the A10, 42 for the West Coast, 38 for the AAC, 28 for the MVC, 20.5 for Conference USA, and 15.5 for the Mountain West).
With these totals, we can divvy out the 36 at-large bids. We could go down to a conference level — six at-large bids for the ACC, on down to one combined at-large for the bottom 13 conferences — or we could say that since power conferences got 71.5 percent of the points, they get 71.5 percent of the at-large bids, or about 26. That leaves 10 for mid-majors.
In reality, power conferences got 31 of 36 at-large bids in 2018. So we’d be giving mid-majors five more spots because they’ve proved worthy in the past.
With the coefficients system, the 2018 NCAA’s last five powers (Texas, Oklahoma, UCLA, Arizona State, and Syracuse) would’ve been out, while the top five mid-majors (as determined by NIT seeding: Saint Mary’s, MTSU, Boise State, WKU, and Temple) would have gotten in.
So who would that have hurt? Sure, Syracuse reached the Sweet 16 with a grotesque win over Michigan State, Texas and Nevada played one of the better games of the first round, and Oklahoma’s Trae Young scored 28 points in a loss to Rhode Island.
But Saint Mary’s or MTSU might have been equally capable of a Sweet 16 run, Boise State proved capable of two good games against Nevada, and, hey, Young could have had multiple 28-point outings in the NIT.
Not down with those communist coefficients? Then what about just putting someone in charge of scheduling?
In 2017, following his team’s snub, Illinois State head coach Dan Muller tweeted a public challenge to power-conference teams, hoping to fulfill the near-impossible task of putting together a tourney-caliber schedule when you can’t get powers to come to your gym.
It reaped dividends, scoring a matchup with Ole Miss that the Redbirds won. ISU pieced together an RPI-friendly slate, albeit a year too late. Muller had to replace five key contributors from 2017’s top-50 squad and finished 18-15.
It shouldn’t have been that difficult. And it begs the question: why do we have coaches and assistant ADs assembling schedules at all? In the name of fairness, why couldn’t scheduling involve an outside party, as it does in other big-money sports?
Until then, the Playoff committee and NCAA tournament committee will fall into the same “ain’t played nobody” trap each year.
Saint Mary’s has won four NCAA tournament games in this decade and scared 2-seed Arizona in 2017. Randy Bennett’s Gaels have as much of a reputation as you can as a West Coast mid-major and were among the 30 best teams in the country in 2018, per Ken Pomeroy’s ratings.
Middle Tennessee beat Michigan State in the 2016 NCAAs and Minnesota in 2017’s. Per Pomeroy, the Blue Raiders have been a top-50 team four times this decade under Kermit Davis, and five of the losses in their 24-6 2017-18 regular season came to NCAA tournament teams. They lost to Auburn (an NCAA 4 seed) and Miami (6) by a combined nine points on neutral courts. For the second straight year, they swept games against Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. They went 12-1 in true road games. They had a top-35 RPI.
Instead of joining Loyola and Nevada, Saint Mary’s and MTSU joined a different list, one that includes snubs like Illinois State and Monmouth in 2017, Monmouth and Saint Mary’s in 2016, and Colorado State and Temple in 2015. Saint Mary’s and MTSU responded by winning their NIT openers by a combined 71 points.
Four months earlier, the Playoff committee moved three-loss Mississippi State ahead of unbeaten UCF following a Bulldogs’ win over an eventual 4-8 Arkansas.
This stuff's just a moving target. There is no consistent way for a mid-major to impress the committee. They annually just find some reason to keep them out, and it matters not what they accomplish, or that they never get opportunties at home for wins that will impress the cmte.— Andy Glockner (@AndyGlockner) March 12, 2018
A week after 2018’s tournament Selection Sunday, the Missouri Valley, Mountain West, and West Coast champs still stood.
The ACC champion was out, and the SEC, Pac-12, and Big Ten, which began the tournament with a combined 15 teams, were down to four, slightly fewer than expected, based on seeding. The Pac-12 was completely knocked out after the round of 64’s first day.
Something similar will happen next year. The year after that, too.
No matter how many times actual postseason results show mid-majors can hold their own, and no matter the disparities between committee rankings and advanced analytics, we repeat the mistake the following season.
This isn’t a conspiracy, an evil plot to hold the little guys down. But new ideas could add fairness without really subtracting much from the proceedings.