Mid-Major basketball is on the up and up. I sat down with my Granddad to talk about why.
Mid-major basketball is the best basketball on the planet. Not because of skill or prestige but because of passion and purity. People love a Cinderella story because of the level of pure basketball played within such a narrative.
I think there are three main reasons you need to start watching more basketball from conferences like the Ohio Valley, Missouri Valley, and Conference U.S.A.:
1. They play great basketball.
Beauty lives within the output of a group of guys no destined for the NBA. There’s no ulterior motive. It’s basketball played by people who love basketball.
Gonzaga made a huge run about 15 years ago and got the nation talking about mid-majors. Butler did the same in 2010 but then negated their discussion of being a Cinderella the following year when they made a National Championship appearance for the second year in a row.
As a kid I went to the OVC tournament several years in a row. I can still remember the feeling of going bonkers as Murray State beat Austin Peay on a last second shot from Aubrey Reese. Reese came down the court with three seconds on the clock, dove for the right section of the three-point arch and got swarmed by two Austin Peay defenders. He flew off the ground, carried by what seemed like wings, and tossed a three-point shot that was Jordanesque. The crowd inside the Gaylord Entertainment Center (Bridgestone Arena now) in Nashville went bonkers. It’s one of the greatest sports memories of my life. The Racers earned a 9 seed and went on to lose to Rhode Island, that year—by three points.
2. They win games.
Teams like Valparaiso, Wichita State, Murray State, Butler, Drake, and Northern Iowa, among many others, produce really good basketball teams. They produce winning basketball teams. Murray State has an all-time win percentage of 65. Duke has an all-time win percentage of 70. But the historical records aren’t what is really impressive.
In each the last six seasons Wichita State has won at least 35 games. Three of the last four seasons they have won 30 games. Murray State has a win percentage of 78 in the last five seasons, two of which have been 30 win seasons.
The gap is steadily closing between small schools and large schools in terms of basketball dominance.
I’m not saying that in the next five years teams like Murray State and Drake are going to make consistent Sweet 16 appearances and become a normal feature on CBS for basketball games. But what I am saying is that the rise of Mid-Major basketball as a permanent fixture in every day college hoops lingo is upon us.
Just as it should be.
3. They have great fans.
Of all the reasons to love mid-major basketball, there is none better than the love exemplified for the game and the teams by their fans. My granddad has been a season ticket holder at Murray State since 1968. In preparing for this article I sat down with him and recorded a call so we could talk about basketball. (You can listen below.)
The history with these teams is equally as vast as the powerhouse teams. Each game means as much to a Racer fan as the Final Four games mean to a Kentucky fan. Each game is an important endeavor. Where as for a lot of Kentucky fans, they don’t care what happens before March as long as the team is playing in The Big Dance. It’s as if everything else is pre-season baseball.
For teams like Northern Iowa and Valparaiso each game matters because they’re fighting to prove themselves. The fans care what happens in November because they want to be able to purchase tickets and see their team play in Indianapolis or at the Staples Center in March.
Fans are what make college sports fun for everyone else. If you don’t have a fan base that cares about what happens then the players don’t want to play for the team. They don’t want to show up each night and give it their all. Mid-major basketball gets the fan involved. They have small town radio shows where the coaches hang out and do the show in a restaurant so he can stay and talk basketball with season ticket holders.
There’s a level of intimacy in mid-major basketball that isn’t found in a powerhouse program. When we went to the OVC tournament we’d stay at the same hotel as the players. Before every game the we would line the lobby like a runway for the players. They’d come downstairs and file out the front door onto their bus—high-fiving kids as they walked by.
Mid-major sports embody why people love sports. The game is more pure at that level. It’s hard to say at which point that changes, but it certainly does. The Murray States’ of the world remind us why we love the game of basketball, and why there’s more to it than just playing in National Championships.
For an intimate conversation about why someone would purchase season tickets for 47 years straight check out the conversation I had with my granddad.
Photo: Flickr/Arturo Donate