There are those who will believe that UNI beating Kansas was a good thing for the Missouri Valley Conference and Mid-Majors everywhere.
They’ll say that it will mean mid-majors will get more respect. They’ll claim that it will lead to the Missouri Valley getting more attention and perhaps an at-large bid. Or two. They’ll believe it will be the beginning of better things for the other UNI’s of the world.
But those people are wrong.
Or naive, at least.
The Missouri Valley and Mid-Majors have been to the mountaintop. We’ve seen this play out. We’ve been here before.
Remember Southern Illinois?
Back in 2002, Southern Illinois earned an 11-seed out of the Missouri Valley Conference as an at-large bid (with Creighton, ironically a 12-seed, winning the automatic bid with it’s conference tournament championship). Creighton upset (5) Florida before falling in a close game to (4) Illinois. The Salukis upset (6) Texas Tech before going on to knock off (3) Georgia to make it to the Sweet Sixteen. In the Sweet Sixteen they lost to (2) UConn by 12 points.
In 2003, Southern Illinos again earned an at-large bid, again as an 11-seed. They fell by a point to (6) Missouri. They again lost by a single point in 2004 as a 9-seed to (8) Alabama, who went on to beat (1) Stanford to make it to the Sweet Sixteen. That same year, UNI was the automatic bid from the Missouri Valley. As a 14-seed, they lost by 5 points to (3) Georgia Tech, who went on to the Final Four. In 2005, MVC automatic bid (10) Creighton lost to (7) West Virginia by 2 points, who went on to the Elite Eight. Southern Illinois again earned an at-large bid. As a 7-seed they won their first-round game before falling by 8 points to (2) Oklahoma State. While that run from 2002-2005 was not remarkable, it was certainly respectable.
2006: The Valley reaches The Mountaintop!
After several respectable showings in the preceeding years, and consistent climbing in the RPI (which, ironically, began getting decreasing attention by the selection committee and major sports media alike), Mid-Majors received several at-large bids to the 2006 Big Dance. And three of those went to teams from the Missouri Valley Conference (Bradley, Northern Iowa and Wichita State), giving them four teams including their automatic bid (Southern Illinois). Not to mention, Missouri State became the team with the highest RPI to ever be left out.
While the Nation’s attention was on fellow Mid-Major and underdog George Mason, the Valley quietly made some noise. (11) Southern Illinois lost to (6) West Virginia in the first round, and (10) Northern Iowa lost to (7) Georgetown, who went on to beat (2) Ohio State and make it to the Sweet Sixteen, where they lost by 4 to eventual National Champion (3) Florida.
But the other two teams from the Missouri Valley, Bradley and Wichita State, both turned their at-large bids into trips to the Sweet Sixteen. (13) Bradley beat (4) Kansas and (5) Pittsburgh before falling to (1) Memphis. And (7) Wichita State defeated (10) Seton Hall and (2) Tennesee before dropping their Sweet Sixteen game to, who else, (11) George Mason, who went on to beat (1) UConn to get to the Final Four.
Not a bad year for Mid-Majors, and the Missouri Valley in particular. Four teams in the field of 64 and two in the Sweet Sixteen.
The Elite voice their displeasure…
Of course, the Basketball Elite weren’t happy. Billy Packer and Jim Nantz had famously ridiculed the selection committee for allowing four teams from the Missouri Valley into the Tournament in 2006, three with at-large bids which undoubtedly should have gone to teams from “real” conferences like Packer’s ACC.
“I’m all for the little guy … but it’s gone way too far now,” Nantz ripped after the bracket was unveiled. Packer stated the committee had “to be kidding” when it gave the MVC and Colonial six at-large bids. “What’s going to be great about this first week is what those six bids actually do in the first round,” Packer concluded. That first round was great, just not the way Packer and Nantz envisioned it.
Two of those four from the MVC went on to the Sweet Sixteen, joining mid-majors George Mason and Gonzaga. While Packer and Nantz may have been the most brazen and bold in their criticism, other Elites from the “power conferences”/”BCS schools”/”Top Six conferences” were likely just as unhappy.
And then there were four.
The NCAA is primarily about power (translated: money).
After the magical run in 2006, things began to change. But not for the better if you’re a Mid-Major or a fan.
The Valley was good again in 2007, though only a little of the residual respect remained from 2006 when it came to Selection Sunday. At one point toward the end of the season the Valley had four teams in the RPI Top 50 (Southern Illinois, Creighton, Missouri State and Bradley). The conference was ranked 5th overall in RPI among all conferences (including the Power/Top Six). They were ahead of the Big East and Big 12. In fact, during the 2006-07 season, teams from the MVC went 56-5 at home against non-conference foes. The list of teams that Valley teams beat included Wisconsin, LSU, Syracuse, Butler, Iowa, Iowa State, DePaul, George Mason and Xavier. Oh, and they were 5-0 against Big East opponents. Yet, only Southern Illinois was granted an at-large bid from the Valley for the 2007 Big Dance, though they were given a 4-seed. And they went on to beat (13) Holy Cross and (5) Virginia Tech before losing by 3 points to (1) Kansas.
In 2008, the Valley got the Selection Sunday shaft, as only MVC Tournament Champion Drake went to the Big Dance as a 5-seed, losing by 2 points to (12) Western Kentucky. Illinois State, with 25 wins and 2nd place finishes in the MVC regular season and tournament, was left out. Davidson became the Mid-Major hero, making it to the Elite Eight before losing by 2 points to eventual National Champion (1) Kansas.
And, by 2009, only 4 at-large bids were handed out to Mid-Majors. Four. From twelve in 2004 to four in 2009. And it would be hard to make the argument that it was because when given the opportunity they had squandered it. In fact, it might be easier to make the opposite argument. When given the opportunity, they often did too well. And that made the people with the power and money (or the people who felt entitled to the power and money) unhappy. The other 30 at-large bids all went to teams from the ‘Top Six” (Atlantic Coast, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pacific-10 and Southeastern). Thirty.
So, the 2009 Tournament included very few mid-majors, and lots of poorer teams from the Top Six. Teams like the MVC’s Creighton were snubbed. Sure, the Sweet Sixteen included Gonzaga (although their Mid-Major label has all but faded, a rare feat and one that Boise State is trying to accomplish on the football field as well), and Xavier. But there were no “odd” names among those 16. And there were very few real surprises or Cinderellas. Mission Accomplished?
Dick Vitale seemed to think so:
And the numbers seems to illustrate a trend, a trend that coincides with the success of Mid-Majors.
So, what about 2010?
The Mid-Major at-large count was up a bit again this year. In fact, back up to 8. Ironically, however, few of them actually got to play against the Top Six in the first round. Coincidence, or careful scheduling by the selection committee? Did they take a page from the BCS, who refused to allow Boise State and TCU an opportunity to knock off a power in a Bowl Game and instead made them play each other? There are 15 non-BCS teams with seeds between 5 and 12. Eight of them faced each other in the first round: UNLV vs. Northern Iowa, Butler vs. UTEP, Temple vs. Cornell and Richmond vs. Saint Mary’s. Sure, some of those schools are less traditional “mid-majors”, but they’re all from outside the power conferences. The 2009 Tournament included similar match-ups of Mid-Majors (Drake-Western Kentucky and Davidson-Gonzaga).
So, with more Mid-Majors in the mix this year, what’s happened so far? Maybe one of the craziest opening weekends in recent memory. March Madness may again become March Mayhem. There are several double-digit seeds playing for a chance to get into the Sweet Sixteen, and several that have already earned their spot there. First-round wins for Mid-Majors and teams not from traditional power conferences included (9) UNI over (8) UNLV, (14) Ohio over (3) Georgetown, (8) Gonzaga over (9) Florida State, (5) Butler over (12) UTEP, (13) Murray State over (4) Vanderbilt, (7) BYU over (10) Florida, (12) Cornell over (5) Temple, (11) Old Dominion over (6) Notre Dame and (10) St. Mary’s over (7) Richmond. Not to mention several other upsets and some close calls, like (15) Robert Morris.
And several find themselves in the Sweet Sixteen. Including Butler, Northern Iowa, Cornell and St. Mary’s. UNI got there by beating the overall #1 Kansas.
So, what does UNI beating Kansas mean for the Missouri Valley and Mid-Majors everywhere?
It might mean they’ll get even fewer chances to do it again.
It’s possible that with such a big win, the Valley has dug themselves an even deeper hole.
If that’s true, March Madness will take on a different meaning. And it won’t be nearly as fun.