March Madness 2020: Road to NCAA Tournament is more generous to mid-majors than many believe

When Xavier first offered a serious “hello” to the modern college basketball world, the Musketeers were led by guard Byron Larkin and playing as a No. 12 NCAA Tournament seed as the champion of the Midwestern Collegiate Conference. That was more than three decades ago, and not much is the same.

The MCC renamed itself the Horizon League, but Xavier hasn’t been a member for two decades. Larkin now analyzes XU games on the school’s radio network. And those games are contested primarily in the Big East Conference and televised nationally either on Fox Sports or CBS Sports Network. The Musketeers have made 25 NCAA appearances since, but only on the rarest of occasions have they entered as a double-digit seed.

Xavier decided not to be a mid-major any longer, then made it happen.

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Mid-major basketball is a wonderful thing. It has given us Stephen Curry, Pascal Siakam, Damian Lillard and Ja Morant. It has given us Valpo over Ole Miss, Manhattan over Oklahoma, Mercer over Duke and Weber State over North Carolina. Those teams that compete beyond the most glamorous programs and leagues in the NCAA’s Division I make college basketball better and give the NCAA Tournament so much of its character.

This doesn’t mean these teams deserve some sort of scheduling mandate to even the playing field in Division I basketball. It’s an unattainable goal — and probably unwarranted. That Central Connecticut State’s Blue Devils have a shot at the same championship as Duke’s Blue Devils is a charming construct that makes college basketball unique. It is preposterous, though, to suggest it’s somehow unfair for Duke to choose which teams it wishes to schedule outside of conference play.

ESPN basketball analyst Mark Adams declared “this system is anything but” a level playing field in a post Thursday on Twitter. He complained the current system “rewards big spenders” and claimed every sport governing body in the world works toward schedule balance “except the NCAA.”

If you can find another governing body with 353 competitively and geographically disparate contestants, please let us know about it.

The reality of college athletics is schools are in charge of their own operations except to the extent many belong to conferences and thus essentially subcontract a portion of their schedules to their leagues. Otherwise, they are free to play the opponents in all sports that make the most economic and competitive sense for them. Programs like Duke and Louisville use proceeds from their successful and lucrative basketball programs to help fund the entirety of their athletic departments.

The key thing to remember here is that Duke and Louisville weren’t always this successful and this lucrative. Duke became a national power and a national brand under Mike Krzyzewski. Louisville advanced from the Missouri Valley to the Metro to the Great Midwest to Conference USA to the Big East and now to the ACC, winning three NCAA championships along the way.

Like Xavier, these programs chose to pursue the direction that has led them to be advantaged. It’s only been 20 years since Gonzaga was the tiny program that somehow took Connecticut to the wire in the Elite Eight. But the Zags had ambition and a niche, and they aggressively enhanced their brand, built the McCarthey Athletic Center and won a ton of big games. They didn’t even have to leave the West Coast Conference to become a national power.

In just the last 10 years, we’ve seen similar rises with Butler, Creighton and Wichita State.

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There is nothing inherently unfair about operating as a member of the Ohio Valley Conference, the Missouri Valley Conference or the Atlantic Sun. Bradley’s affiliation with the MVC traces all the way back to 1948. Murray State has been in the OVC without interruption since 1948. These leagues have made geographic and competitive sense for these schools for decades.

To suggest, however, that Kentucky should be forced to play road non-conference games against the Racers or that Illinois should be required to visit Peoria to play the Braves is preposterous. UK has nothing to gain from such a game, playing in a much smaller venue where fewer tickets can be sold and less money can be made for either team.

Do the biggest schools have an advantage in entering March Madness? From a numerical perspective, certainly. From a competitive perspective, however, it can be argued that those teams competing in what are grouped colloquially as “one-bid leagues” have a practical advantage. Through the automatic qualification process, they are guaranteed 32.4 percent of the NCAA Tournament field. Do they have a third of the best teams?

KenPom includes only 12 such teams in its top 100. ESPN’s strength of record, which does not consider margin of victory and judges strictly on wins, losses and the quality of both, also has 12 mid-majors among its top 100.

The problem with proposing that the most powerful schools ought to be required by the NCAA to schedule road games against these programs is it ignores the likely consequences, which would be calamitous.

The smart people in those conferences understand the incredible value created by the current chemistry of March Madness. They get that the public loves to see UC Irvine upset Kansas State and take a shot at doing the same with the Oregon Ducks.

If those programs were to be faced with the requirement to play road non-league games in smaller gyms for lesser checks and few competitive rewards, how quickly do you think they’d be out the door to commence staging the College Basketball Playoff? It would be less fun, less appealing and less lucrative, but it would be theirs.

That’s the difference between fantasy and reality.

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