It should have been apparent long before the ball left J.P. Moorman‘s hands, traveled 70-feet through the air of Desert Financial Arena and ripped through the net, delivering the season’s most stunning finish.
The gap is closing.
UC Riverside’s wild November 11th win over Arizona State was the first of several notable victories, over a 24-hour period, that served notice (or should have) that the “haves” no longer have as much as they once did over the “have-nots.”
The following day Furman knocked off Louisville, Princeton toppled South Carolina, Oakland outlasted Oklahoma State and Santa Clara stunned Stanford. All upsets, by definition. All easily chalked up to early-season chaos, or power programs adjusting to transfer-portal roster raiding. But they’re also indisputable proof of a shift, slight though it may be, in the balance of power in college basketball.
“Mid-majors” — for our purposes, programs outside the top 7 conferences (Power Five, Big East, AAC) and Gonzaga — posted a .153 winning percentage against their major conference brethren, in games played through December 31st. That’s up at least 11% from each of the previous five seasons, per ESPN Stats & Information. And though that may not seem like a big number, consider that in most instances, these games are “buy games” — contests in which power conference programs pay mid-majors sizeable money, to prepare them for league play. Effectively tune-ups.
The NCAA tournament, of course, is where mid-major wins resonate loudest, and since 2011, Cinderella has crashed her share of dances. Mid-majors have won at least five first-round games in nine of the last 10 NCAA tournaments. Over that span, mid-major teams have been an underdog against major conference, Big East, AAC or Gonzaga 288 times and have won 21% of those games!
Limiting the impact of mid-majors to the college game would be an oversight. The success of mid-major alumni in the NBA can be found in each Steph Curry three, Damian Lillard buzzer-beater, Paul George dunk and Kawhi Leonard fadeaway.
Of the 10 former college basketball players to make All-NBA First, Second or Third Team last season, four played at mid-major schools. Three of the five players on the 2019-2020 All-NBA Second Team were mid-major alums. The previous season half of the former college players on the NBA’s top two teams played at mid-majors. Over the last nine seasons, at least one player on the NBA’s top three teams, played at a mid-major program.
Thus, the demand for recognition.
Thus, the need for a barometer.
Thus, the KC’s Mid-Major Top 10.
Each week, our committee will rank the top mid-major programs utilizing a list of simple criteria including: overall résumé, head-to-head results and strength of performance via statistical formulas, scientific calculations, analytics, algorithms and NASA-grade metrics.
So, without further ado, we present this week’s KC’s Mid-Major Top 10:
With Porter Moser leaving for Oklahoma and All-American Cameron Krutwig departing following his senior year, it would have been understandable if the Ramblers had dropped off.
Coach Drew Valentine has Loyola (9-2) atop our poll, with non-conference wins over Arizona State, DePaul and Vanderbilt. The Ramblers’ two losses are to Michigan State (by 2) and Auburn (by 9) — both currently AP Top 10 teams — and both on consecutive days, in the Bad Boy Mowers Battle for Atlantis.
Next up: vs. San Francisco (Salt Lake City, Thursday)
“But KC, Colorado State is ranked No. 20 in the latest AP Top 25 poll!”
Look, this is hardly a slight to the Rams (11-0), and more a nod to Loyola’s play against better competition.
Regardless, Niko Medved continues to work wonders in Fort Collins. His Rams are one of just three remaining unbeaten teams in D-I (Baylor, USC), with quality wins over Creighton, Saint Mary’s and Mississippi State.
A January 7th meeting with Boise State will be a major test.
Next up: at Boise State (Friday)
Mark Pope’s team had, arguably, the best start to the season among all mid-major teams with opening week victories over San Diego State and Oregon (in Eugene, by 32!) The Cougars finished November with another impressive road win over Utah, before being tripped up by Mark Madsen’s very good Utah Valley team.
Five Quad 2 wins and a legit star in Alex Barcello, have BYU (12-3) firmly in at No. 3.
Next up: vs. Pacific (Thursday)
The perennial Mountain West powers are back, with an eye on a second straight trip to the NCAA tournament and ninth since 2010. Coach Brian Dutcher’s team shied away from no one in the non-conference, suffering defeats to BYU, USC and Michigan — but also registering quality wins over Arizona State and Georgetown.
Yet it’s their mid-December victory over Saint Mary’s in the Jerry Colangelo Classic that stands out and has the Aztecs one spot ahead of…
Next up: vs. Nevada (Saturday)
It’s not surprising to see Randy Bennett’s team among the elite mid-major programs in college basketball. What is surprising, is how much competition Saint Mary’s will have in conference this season, outside the obvious Goliath residing in Spokane.
Still, the Gaels (12-3) will be a force in the WCC, as evidenced by their performance in the Maui Jim Maui Invitational. Impressive wins over Notre Dame and Oregon (not to mention a strong showing in a championship game loss to Wisconsin) coupled with solid W’s over Utah State and Missouri State, are all signs for great optimism in Moraga.
Next up: at BYU (Saturday)
The winningest program in WCC history (I know, right?!) the Dons (13-1) won their first 10 games of the season, against a veritable who’s-who of KC’s Mid-Major Top 10 contenders. Davidson, UAB, UNLV and Fresno State are all quality wins, as is the always impressive takedown of a Power 5 (66-65 at Arizona State in mid-December.)
A rock-fight defeat against a solid Grand Canyon team is the lone blemish on Coach Todd Golden’s team’s schedule.
Next up: Loyola Chicago (Salt Lake City, Thursday)
It gets no more impressive than what Bob McKillop has accomplished in 33 seasons of coaching at Davidson. Nine conference coach of the year honors, national coach of the year honors in 2008 and nine trips to the NCAA tournament. This season could be No. 10 given the Wildcats’ (11-2) start.
A current 9-game win streak, including a pre-Christmas stunner over Alabama, has eased the burn of two early season L’s to San Francisco and New Mexico State.
Next up: vs. Rhode Island (Saturday)
It’s the Bruins’ (10-3) final season in the OVC before they depart for the MVC, and there won’t be many upset to see them go.
Coach Casey Alexander has followed up the enormous success of the legend Rick Byrd with back-to-back 26-win seasons. Belmont’s Big 3 of Nick Muszynski, Ben Sheppard and Grayson Murphy are among the best trios in the game, and victories over Drake, Iona, Saint Louis and Chattanooga are all legit.
Next up: Southeast Missouri State (Thursday)
No back-room bribes from Woj were taken in the making of this pick.
The Committee spent hours debating the merits (and faults) of the Bonnies. Still, as dreadful as they looked against Virginia Tech, the ultimate decision was made to keep Coach Mark Schmidt’s team (8-3) in the Top 10.
Wins over Boise State, Clemson, Marquette and Buffalo happened, and we believe Kyle Lofton and the Bonnies are more that team than the one we saw against the Hokies.
Next up: vs. Saint Louis (Saturday)
Surely this Top 10 ranking is among the most prestigious accomplishments in Rick Pitino’s Hall of Fame career.
Watch the Gaels’ win over Alabama in the ESPN Events Invitational back in late-November and you tell me this team isn’t the real deal. Losses to Belmont and Kansas the following two games are the only hiccups to date for Iona (11-2) — which also notched wins against the likes of Harvard, Hofstra and Liberty.
Anything but a repeat victory in the MAAC Championship would be a surprise.
Next up: Manhattan (Jan. 14)
Others receiving votes: Boise State, Wyoming, UAB
ESPN Stats and Info researcher Jared Berson contributed to this article