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Mid-Major Success Demonstrates the Growth of Women’s College Basketball

11-seeds Buffalo and Central Michigan both reached the Sweet Sixteen this season.

NCAA Womens Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Spokane Regional James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

In the landscape of women’s college basketball, the major programs dominate the polls, the NCAA Tournament, and the headlines. While the sport is still struggling to get attention from the media, schools such as UConn, South Carolina, Notre Dame, Tennessee and Mississippi State, among few others, dominate the limited coverage.

Because of this, one of the sport’s biggest criticisms that the NCAA Tournament isn’t exciting because the best teams always win and there are never any upsets or Cinderella runs. But that just simply isn’t true.

Last season, No. 10 Oregon made a run to the Elite Eight. The year prior, No. 7 Washington reached the Final Four. In 2013, No. 5 Louisville knocked off the Brittany Griner-led Baylor Bears en route to the national title game. And who could forget Mississippi State knocking off mighty UConn last year?

But it’s not just about teams in the power conferences making noise in March. This year, mid-majors have grabbed headlines with upsets across the bracket, which has gotten the attention of Geno Auriemma, coach of top-seeded UConn Huskies.

“If you look around the country, the mid-major programs are a lot better than people think,” he said. “[Teams] at the mid-major level don’t get any respect. On the men’s side they do, but not on the women’s side.”

However, a few teams are trying to change that this year. Four mid-major schools (outside the “power five,” Big East and American Conferences) won their first games, while two — Nos. 11 Buffalo and Central Michigan — advanced to the Sweet 16.

For South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley, who spent eight seasons as head coach at Temple, she understands how difficult it is for these mid-major programs to find success in the tournament.

“The struggle for me was to make the tournament and then advance through at least the second weekend of the tournament, and you need talent,” Staley said. “Ten years ago when I was at Temple, you really couldn’t get the talent.”

While these runs from mid-majors are beginning to become more commonplace, Auriemma hopes to see it happen even more frequently.

“I think that’s the best thing that ever happened,” Auriemma said, referring to the two 11-seeds in the Sweet 16. “I think that’s the best thing that could happen to our game.”

Staley echoed those sentiments and noted how every upset inspires the potential for another one in the future.

“The fact that Buffalo and Central Michigan are here, playing in the Sweet Sixteen, gives other coaches hope to keep on coaching,” she said. “It gives them a little boost of energy to know that it could happen. It can happen. You can get out of the first week and on to the second week and compete at the highest level.”

One of the best parts of March Madness is the upsets that happen throughout the month as well as the annual Cinderella runs by smaller, lesser-known schools.

“Mid-majors have a part in any NCAA Tournament,” Buffalo guard Cierra Dillard said. “We deserve everything we’ve worked hard for in the season to be here at this stage. We’ve put in a lot of success to be here too. We beat some unbelievable teams to get here.”

Much of that success comes from mindset as well. Throughout the weekend in Albany, Buffalo coach Felisha Legette-Jack continually reiterated that she did not few her program in the MAC as a mid-major program.

“I don’t consider myself a mid-major coach or a major coach. I’ve been on every stage. I’ve worked with USA Basketball and won Gold Medals,” she said. “I look at talent and character first and I look at academic standards then I say, ‘Let’s coach the team, the kids, where they are.”

In order to help the mid-major levels continue to grow, Auriemma suggests lowering the scholarship limit from 15 to 13, allowing more good players to make an impact at a small school instead of riding the bench at one of the powerhouses. At the moment, mid-major coaches have to be creative in their recruiting — many recruit international players heavily.

“Sometimes you have to go that route in order for you to get some quality players,” Staley said. “When it comes down to it, it’s not [a fair game]. To be able to play for a Power-Five school is always greater in most people’s eyes.”

Another key for these schools is targeting the players they think best fit the program and building relationships with said players as opposed to selling recruits on history or facilities.

“I think kids want to play for people and they want to go to a school to learn,” Legette-Jack said. “They don’t talk to buildings, they talk to the assistant coaches.

However, another issue is a lack of coverage for smaller programs. They’re rarely on television and never have photos taken of their games for use.

“There’s a lot of good players playing high school girls basketball. There’s a lot of good players playing in college,” Auriemma said. “But because they’re not all at the schools that are on TV all the time, people don’t get a chance to see them.”

Unlike their counterparts at some of the top schools in the nation, mid-major players don’t have any exterior motives. They simply want to play basketball.

“You look at the way they play, you look at how hard those kids play, how hard they compete, they’re not playing to go to the WNBA,” Auriemma said. “They get kids who are dying to play basketball and they play that way. I love watching those games. I root for them all the time, I really do.”

Auriemma wants to see these teams continue to go on runs and bust brackets in the NCAA Tournament while also getting respect from the committee as a quality team.

“I hope it keeps happening and I hope they get rewarded for it,” he said. “Quinnipiac got rewarded for it with a nine seed. That’s pretty high for that league. I hope more mid-majors get a high seed down the road.”

However, as big of a fan of Auriemma is of these squads, he doesn’t want to see his team on the wrong side of an upset at the hands of a mid-major.

“I’m glad it hasn’t happened more,” he laughed. “But it happened just enough times.”