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A love letter to the mid-majors

Your nearest NCAA team might not have the name recognition of Baylor or Stanford, but that doesn’t mean the basketball is any less exciting.

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NCAA Womens Basketball: West Coast Conference Tournament-Gonzaga vs San Diego
Senior Zykera Rice looks to lead the Gonzaga Bulldogs in 2018-19 following star forward Jill Barta’s early exit from the program.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The mid-majors are all too often known as the schools sacrificed to power conference teams in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, hardly given a fair shot to establish themselves as a team at a national level. But so many of these teams are genuinely exciting, so hear us out. Have you considered supporting a mid-major during the regular season? Whether there’s one in your city that you’ve overlooked or one that always seems to pop up on your team’s preseason schedule or NCAA bracket, take a chance and let’s explore together the wonders of the mid-majors.

Before we begin: Yes, UConn is in a mid-major conference, and other schools from the American Athletic Conference will be discussed here. However, as a competitive recruiter and former Big East power with fans around the world, they simply don’t need the extra name recognition that this article will provide. (In short: Yes, UConn is good. But this article isn’t about teams like UConn.)

Here are the ways that mid-majors are awesome:

Basketball culture

Fifty teams had an average per-game attendance of 2,605 or more last season. While South Carolina, UConn and Tennessee are often clamoring for the top spot, one tiny school has been climbing up the ranks for years, topping out at No. 11 in 2017-18, with an average of 5,561 fans per game: Gonzaga University (West Coast) in Spokane, Washington. And with that ranking, they eclipsed No. 12 Maryland, No. 13 Iowa and No. 14 Ohio State — all Big Ten powerhouses.

But maybe you don’t live near Spokane. Maybe you’re closer to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and No. 17 Middle Tennessee (Conference USA), or Albuquerque, New Mexico and No. 18 New Mexico (Mountain West). Here are the other mid-major teams in the top 50:

31. Toledo (Ohio) — Mid-American

34. Montana (Missoula, MT) — Big Sky

37. University of Central Florida (Orlando, FL) — American

39. Chattanooga (Tennessee) — Southern

42. Drake (Des Moines, IA) — Missouri Valley

46. Wyoming (Laramie, WY) — Mountain West

47. University of South Florida (Tampa, FL) — American

48. Hampton (Virginia) — Big South

50. Dayton (Ohio) — Atlantic 10

Of course, attendance isn’t the only reflection of how good a team is or how potent the basketball culture of an area can be.

Standout players

In the 2018 WNBA Draft, five players were drafted straight out of mid-major schools, and none before the final pick in the second round. The last time a player from a mid-major was taken in the first round was in 2016, when Connecticut Sun forward Jonquel Jones (George Washington University, Atlantic 10) was drafted sixth overall.

It’s not uncommon that a player from a mid-major conference even seeing her name on the WNBA draft board is a momentous occasion for her university. For example, in 2010 Vivian Frieson was the first women’s player ever to be drafted out of Gonzaga and, although she didn’t make the Tulsa Shock, she paved the way for Courtney Vandersloot’s third overall pick in the 2011 draft.

Current WNBA players who were the first-ever draft picks out of their mid-major universities include Natasha Cloud (Saint Joseph’s, Atlantic 10, 2015) and Tamera Young (James Madison, Colonial, 2008).

But players don’t have to be top-tier WNBA prospects in order to garner recognition while they’re still in school. One prime example: Last season, five of the top ten scorers in the nation came from mid-majors, most notably St. Francis University’s (Northeast) Jessica Kovatch, who was neck-and-neck with Iowa’s Megan Gustafson for much of the 2017-18 season before Gustafson eventually finished on top. So, when St. Francis opened its 2018 NCAA Tournament against UConn, even though their fate was more or less sealed going in, fans still got the Kovatch story — she only received one Division I scholarship offer and turned it into two straight Nancy Lieberman Award watch list appearances. St. Francis fans, of course, had known about this for her entire career.

Tournament success

For better or worse, the Final Four every year has the potential to get predictable. UConn, for example, hasn’t missed a Final Four since 2007. Last season, all four of those teams were one-seeds, with Mississippi State making its second consecutive national championship appearance. There are some fun ones in recent history, however, such as the 2016 Final Four that featured 4-seed Syracuse and 7-seed Louisville duking it out to determine who would face UConn in the championship. But mid-majors typically tend to be scarce the deeper the tournament goes.

Some, though, have made incredible runs. Gonzaga, for example, is the lowest seed ever to make an Elite Eight, doing so as an 11-seed in 2011 (led by Courtney Vandersloot in her senior season).

Speaking of double-digit seeds: Last season, 11-seeds Central Michigan and Buffalo (both Mid-American) advanced to the Sweet Sixteen, knocking off Ohio State and Florida State, respectively. Gonzaga also advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in 2012 and 2015, both times as an 11-seed. Twelve-seeds Quinnipiac (2017, Metro Atlantic), BYU (2014, West Coast) and San Francisco (1996, West Coast), as well as 13-seeds Marist (2007, Metro Atlantic) and Liberty (2005, Big South) have also advanced to the Sweet Sixteen.

This isn’t to discount the mid-majors who’ve rightly earned single-digit seeds, including 9-seed Quinnipiac, 8-seed South Dakota State (Summit), 7-seed Green Bay (Horizon) and 6-seed South Florida, to name just a few in 2018. As mid-major single-digit seeds who’ve been “upset” in the first round can attest, sometimes it’s a little sweeter being the obvious Cinderella team.

Unfortunately, it’s common for many of these teams not to fall on non-local fans’ radars until the NCAA Tournament, which for a good handful of mid-major conferences means they’re only given one spot in the tournament (and, often, a double-digit seed) to show off the strength of their entire conference. But it arguably enhances the fan experience to familiarize yourself with mid-majors for the above reasons, with the added bonus of being exactly knowledgeable enough to argue online about the non-conference-tournament-winning teams that were clearly snubbed.

Go forth and find your nearest mid-major! (Or the one with the widest viewing options!) (Or the one that’s playing the power conference schools near you in the preseason!) Your overall basketball knowledge — not to mention your postseason bracketology skills — will thank you for your effort.