Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Who you callin' a mid-major?

College basketball is a lot like the Hollywood scene: the rich get richer, while it is increasingly difficult and competitive for an unknown or "small-time" actor to become one of the marquee names.

(Ed. Note: For his wondering fans, a picture of BIAH contributor and through-and-through Blue Devil fan, Ross, can be seen below).

The analogy is simple: big-name programs like Duke, Kansas, North Carolina (and for you, Rob, UConn) are granted unspoken (and perhaps unfair) privileges. They have the biggest recruiting budgets, the most recognizable logos and uniforms, and play on national television multiple times a season. As a result, recruits across the country see these teams play, and these powerhouse programs are able to afford to go see any recruit they choose. It is no surprise that every year, the best high school players in the country routinely select the same schools (by my count, there are anywhere from 18-24 of these schools in the country). The proof is everywhere: look at the rosters from some of college basketball's most storied and successful programs. A few of the players will be local, but many will be from all over the country. Players that grow up in California see Duke and North Carolina just as much as they see their local school. The flip-side is true, as well: players in New York can watch UCLA all the time.

Now, what happens if you are a small school with little or no prestigious basketball history? For the most part, schools like this work hard to attain moderate levels of success, and reaching the NCAA tournament seems like the ultimate prize (I am mostly talking about schools outside of the BCS Conferences). These schools recruit mostly local players, develop them over three or four years, and then hope that a team of upper-classmen can beat more talented freshman from bigger schools. Schools like Penn, Bucknell, Tulsa, New Mexico and others have achieved success like this for years.

Now, all of this is changing. Watch out, Jayhawks and Bruins, Huskies and Hoyas! The mid-majors are coming! This trend has been written about exhaustively in the past few years. It started with Gonzaga's success at the beginning of the decade. Players like Blake Stepp, Dan Dickau and later Ronny Turiaf and Adam Morrison transformed the tiny Spokane school into a basketball powerhouse. Butler followed, beating numerous BCS schools over the past few years and becoming a team that no one wants to play. The fears of college basketball's blue bloods were confirmed when George Mason, a commuter school outside of Washington, D.C., with no basketball history and a wacky coach, made the Final Four in 2006.

The next team to follow in this tradition seems to be tiny Davidson College, a 1,600-student school outside of Charlotte, NC. Their march to the Elite Eight, led by guards Stephen Curry and Jason Richards, riveted a nation. Now, with Curry back as a pre-season All-American, people are starting to notice the tiny Wildcats.

But here is the difference: national television is starting to take notice as well. As a recent ESPN.com article (insider needed - Andy Katz's blog )outlined, as many as seven Davidson games will appear before a national audience this season. While ESPN did create "BracketBuster" games to showcase mid-major teams that might make trouble for a traditional power in the NCAA tournament, this is the first time that the network has gone out of its way to showcase a school like Davidson.

So what does this mean? Well, for starters, it's hard to call Davidson a mid-major anymore. The national television exposure will give high-school players around the country a chance to watch their style and imagine themselves in Wildcat red. Their basketball budget will rise. Curry will be on the cover of magazines and on television around the country, giving the program a face. All of these sound like trademarks of schools like Duke and North Carolina. And to think, Davidson is brash enough to creep onto the scene in their own backyard.

Parity in any arena is hard to come by. Directors in Hollywood will always want to cast Tom Cruise or Matt Damon, rather than take a chance on an unknown actor. And ESPN or CBS will always want to show a school from the ACC or Big East that even casual fans have heard of, rather than an unknown team that no one cares about. Yet Davidson, Butler and George Mason prove that the glass ceiling can be broken. Teams that were afterthoughts one year can become darlings the next. As Curry and Davidson are about to find out, the trick is sustaining it.


Anonymous said...

It should be noted that Duke fan/self-flagellator Ross, doesn't just cry at sporting events... you should see him weep at the end of How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days

Ross Weingarten said...

Take a look at ESPN's prestige rankings from the last 20 years. It seems like Duke fans have been crying a lot less recently than anyone else...
And it's not my fault I get choked up with McConaughey and Kate Hudson end up together. They were meant to be!!

Anonymous said...

I suppose you've learned this feminine trait from watching your players, e.g. Reddick, Laettner, Mcroberts. I don't believe that's why you were crying at the end... I distinctly remember hearing you mumble over and over "why isn't that me that Matthew is holding bare-chested."

Anonymous said...

Is this a joke?
Davidson no longer a Mid-Major? Ha.
Gonzaga and Memphis are the only Non-BCS to not be called mid-major. For god sake it took both of them plenty of time and they're the absolute Gold Standard.
Who wrote this? Some guy from North Carolina? Once Curry is gone, Davidson falls off the map just like:
George Mason
Santa Clara
Kent State
Wichita State
and the list goes on and on and on.

Rob Dauster said...

Anon - The point being made here is that Davidson has positioned themselves to become a national power on the same level as a Gonzaga. For one, they ARE playing seven nationally televised games, even if it is because they have Stephen Curry. But when you are a school that plays in a mid-major conference, you need that one lucky recruit to slip through the cracks, land at your school, and give your school some national recognition. And Davidson got just that with Curry.

Davidson becoming another Gonzaga is not as far fetched as you would think (I think you may be a 'Zags fan because I know this post was linked over there, and some people on the message boards are none to happy about it). At the mid-major level, the swing in talent level for teams is normally a result of having a great coach for a while, and once his team hits in big time, he bolts for more money and a higher profile. Bob McKillop did not do that and in fact signed a very long deal with Davidson, much the way Mark Few has stayed in Spokane, even after an Elite 8 run, again like Few.

So with the national exposure, the knowledge that the school can produce good players (Curry will be a first round pick when he leaves, and Jason Richards is going to make a lot of money playing basketball somewhere), the security of playing for the same coach for four years (who already made a tourney run), and the exceptional education you get at Davidson all set up the Wildcats to get some good recruits.

And I didn't even mention the fact that Davidson has been the best team in that conference for the better part of this decade. Noone is insulting Gonzaga here, we are simply saying that if Davidson plays their cards right, they could be the East Coast 'Zags.