By: Zachery Bonzheim
College basketball has seen a notable increase in the small schools getting talented players, developing them into elite seniors, and taking on the major programs like nothing. While teams such as Duke, Kentucky, and Kansas are turning out one-year stars left and right, the Gonzaga’s, San Diego State’s, and Wichita State’s of the NCAA are pulling thousands into their packed arenas and beating the likes of Arizona and Indiana.
Some credit these teams great records to their weak conference schedules, but when March comes around many of these same teams are being labeled ‘Cinderellas’ when they take down teams like Duke and Michigan State and reach points in the tournament considered goals for most major programs. How would these teams fare in the major conferences in their geographic region? This article will look at some of the most well-known mid-majors and compare them to those conferences. We do not consider the American Athletic Conference and the Big East as mid-major conferences.
Gonzaga– 17-0 – West Coast Conference / Pac 12 – Gonzaga would be inserted into a top heavy conference including #3 UCLA, #11 Oregon, #14 Arizona, and two star-studded squads in Cal and Washington. Luckily for Gonzaga, they already beat Arizona, the current Pac 12 leaders. Gonzaga would easily be competing with Arizona, UCLA, Cal, and Oregon for the title but where in that mix would they end up. When looking at their ninth highest RPI in the nation, one could assume that Gonzaga would win the Pac 12. Arizona has the next highest RPI at 13 and we all already know how that match-up ended last time. If worse came to worse, the Bulldogs may fumble on their road games to Arizona, UCLA, and Oregon, leaving them with 3 losses in the conference. Three losses could easily still win a self-destructive Pac 12.
Final Verdict: We would expect them top two in the Pac 12 and it would be no surprise if they won it all come March.
VCU– 14-4 – A10 / ACC – VCU would be slotted into one of the most consistent conferences in all of college basketball. With teams like North Carolina, Duke, Florida State, Notre Dame, Louisville, Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Syracuse, it would be hard to see VCU competing. VCU’s RPI of 37, a total of 7 ACC teams ranked above them. VCU, although a powerhouse in the ACC doesn’t look to have the same fate as Gonzaga.
Final Verdict- I would predict VCU to be in the middle of the pack in the ACC. They would be in the big dance but seeded between 8 and 12.
Wichita State– 16-4 – Missouri Valley Conference / Big 12 – Wichita has been a mainstay in the tournament for a while now. Led by Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet in recent years, we saw them go toe-to-toe with some the nation’s best programs and always teasing us with a chance of an undefeated season. The Big 12 has proven to be a jumble of self-destruction the past few years with Kansas always reigning supreme. Baylor, Kansas, and West Virginia are the only ranked Big 12 teams, all of which are final four threats. Wichita has a low RPI of 83, many Big 12 teams rank above this mild mark. Their low RPI can be accounted for in their weak strength of schedule, a problem caused by being a mid-major. One thing working in Wichita’s favor is their win over a Big 12 midler in Oklahoma. Their possible biggest weakness is their shellacking from current Big 12 bottom dweller Oklahoma State. Wichita State reminds me a lot of Kansas State, TCU, and Texas Tech. In a conference like the Big 12, their games against the big dogs will almost always be losses, but if they take advantage of their easy games they will find a route to be top five in the conference and a spot in the big dance.
Final Verdict- Wichita State would stay outside the top three in the conference, a spot reserved for Kansas, Baylor, and West Virginia. Wichita would also find it very hard to compete at Iowa State. I would place Wichita at the 4-6 spot in a conference only sporting 10 teams. At 4 and 5 they will get into NCAA Tournament, the sixth spot they would need to hope for the strength of schedule and RPI to carry them in.
Florida Gulf Coast– 14-5 – Atlantic Sun / SEC – FGCU took three losses early on to some very good teams in Baylor, Florida, and Michigan State, then they beat a lot of nobodies, then lost to some teams that raised some eyebrows. Lucky for Florida Gulf Coast, the SEC is not a bloodbath like the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, or Pac 12. Year in and year out, Kentucky has won the conference, Florida has always been top three, and as of late, South Carolina has taken that third spot. Texas A&M, LSU, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, and Missouri have found themselves at the bottom of the bucket. The middle, filled with Georgia, Arkansas, Alabama, Auburn, and Mississippi State, all teams who have lost a lot of talent, does not appear to be the strongest in the nation. With all of this being said, FGCU could find themselves competing in one of the easier of the major conferences. Sure, their RPI is not the best, and they have some bad losses, but this FGCU team held their own against teams such as Michigan State and Baylor.
Final Verdict- Florida Gulf Coast would be somewhere in the middle of the conference. At best they would finish fourth and at worst eighth. This is a mighty large difference in numerical rank but could be only separated by 2-3 games by the time conference play ends. Even if they finish at fourth in the SEC it’s no guarantee that they would get to the tournament come March.
Dayton- 13-4 – A10 / BigTen – The A10 is a good conference. VERY GOOD. With Richmond, Dayton, LaSalle, St. Bonaventure, Rhode Island, Davidson, George Mason, George Washington, and Massachusetts all in the same conference, it has proven to be the best mid-major conference in the nation. Dayton would be in the Big Ten since they are located in the heart of the Buckeye Nation and not the ACC as many other A10 schools would. How would they fair in the BigTen? The Flyers would be somewhere in the middle. The BigTen not only is one of the best skill wise, it’s very well distributed. This year there are only a couple bad teams (ok, only one, sorry Rutgers) in the BigTen. With an RPI of 27, a very good RPI, they did suffer losses to Northwestern and Nebraska. I would expect the Flyers to end up somewhere in the 6-10 range in the conference standings. Lucky for Dayton, it would be to no one’s surprise if 9/12 got into the tournament come March. Would Dayton compete for a title? It’s possible in a chaotic conference like the BigTen, but in a league where you travel from Maryland to Nebraska and Rutgers to Minnesota, the travel along with the massive BigTen arenas would be hard to overcome night in and night out.
Final Verdict- I would expect Dayton to follow (in no particular order) Maryland, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Minnesota, and Purdue in the standings, slotting them at the seven spot. In the BigTen, being seventh is not a guarantee to get in the tournament, but it is very easy and common. I would expect them in come March.
This all being said, what do you think? There are a lot of teams not covered in this article, could the teams from out west, UNLV, BYU, Saint Mary’s, and San Diego State, compete for the Pac 12 the same way Gonzaga could? Would the slew of A10 teams make impacts in the ACC and SEC? Could teams like Valparaiso and Northern Iowa disrupt the BigTen? Until the next big realignment, it is very hard to find out. Some of these mid-majors have joined together to form their own major conference (see the Big East) and have proven themselves as part of the mainstream basketball world. This article left a lot of questions unanswered, but hopefully, it helped show how some of the most notorious mid-majors would compete right now this year. Come March, we will all see these teams in action against their major conference counterparts. This will be when we all see one of these teams that no one, including myself, gave a shot in a major conference make a run at a national title. We can only wait!