It’s Time To Embrace College Basketball’s Mid-Majors

Murray-State-basketballOf all the things I expected to be writing about today, it’s safe to say that Long Beach State basketball was nowhere near the top of that list. Had you asked me a week ago, I’d have thought it more likely that I’d be writing a fashion preview for the upcoming Academy Awards than anything related to Long Beach State hoops.

Except here we are on the second to last Monday in February, and the 49ers (the non-San Fran edition, anyway) are on my mind.

Why Long Beach State? Well, I’ll explain in a minute, at which point you’ll hopefully understand my bizarre, newfound fascination with the team. But before we get into why I love Long Beach State so much, let me first tell you what you need to know about them. Here is their basketball season in a nutshell to date:

As things stand, LBSU is 19-7 on the season. Of their seven losses, six have come on the road. Of those six losses on the road, four have come to Top 20 teams (at San Diego State, at Louisville, at North Carolina, at Kansas), another on the home court of a near NCAA Tournament lock (Creighton, which at this point would need a team-wide case on mononucleosis to derail their tourney chances), and another at Montana, a club which is 20-6, and a co-leader in the Big Sky standings. The one non-road loss was to Kansas State, a near NCAA Tournament lock as well. Outside of those games, Long Beach State is 19-0, with a win at Pitt, a neutral court win over Xavier… and oh by the way, they still haven’t lost a game in conference play yet either.

Not a bad resume, right? Apparently it isn’t as good as I thought, since after losing at Creighton Saturday night (at the buzzer, mind you), all the buzz on Twitter and on ESPN’s airwaves was that the 49ers- my beloved 49ers- still might not make the NCAA Tournament if they don’t win the Big West Conference Tournament. To which I must say… huh? If Long Beach State isn’t one of the 68 best teams in college basketball right now, then somebody needs to call an optometrist, because your boy Aaron needs his eyes checked. Otherwise, I’m thinking there’s something totally screwy with the way we select our NCAA Tournament teams.

Now at this point, let me be clear on one thing: This column isn’t about me actually making a case for Long Beach State. I’m not going to waste anyone’s time on that. Instead, it’s about the state of mid-major basketball itself. Because in a year where major college basketball teams  sloppily beat up on each other in games that continue to get uglier by the night, I’m willing to step off my high-horse, and admit that I was wrong, and say that everything I thought I knew about major college basketball is incorrect. Forget being considered for NCAA Tournament berths, in 2012, there are a boatload of mid-major teams deserving of them.

Think I’m wrong? Well I must ask, did you watch any of the Bracket Buster games on ESPN this weekend? Because after spending most of this college basketball season watching second-tier Big East and ACC teams grapple like low-level MMA fighters, and struggle to break 60 points on any given night, I was stunned- STUNNED- by the quality of play that the mid-major programs brought to the table Saturday. If anything, I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that this is the best group of non-BCS, non “Power Six” conference teams that I’ve ever seen.

Look, I’d be lying to you if I said that I was an expert on this stuff. I’m not, and can no easier tell you the intricacies of the Missouri Valley race, than I can provide insight into high-end fashion design (seriously, I’m a sportswriter and blogger. What could I possibly know about fashion?). If insight into mid-majors is what you’re looking for, I’ll gladly defer you to the guys at CBS, ESPN or BallinIsAHabit. This is their expertise. I’m just a novice.

At the same time, I’ve spent my whole life watching basketball, and what I can tell you is that unequivocally, these teams can play. The names on the jerseys might not be familiar, and the players might be guys you’ve never heard of, but good basketball is good basketball regardless of where it’s played. And right now, it’s being played at the mid-major level. Off the top of my head, I see no reason why any of the following non-BCS teams couldn’t make a run to at least the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, if not further. Those teams, in no paticular order, are: Murray State, UNLV, New Mexico, San Diego State, Temple, Iona, Wichita State, Creighton, VCU, George Mason, Long Beach State, Gonzaga and St. Mary’s.

And oh by the way, that list doesn’t even include a lot of other teams I know I’m missing. It doesn’t include a second team from the A-10 like Xavier (which, we know is talented enough to make a run), any of the teams immersed in the Conference USA quagmire (which I find to be tougher to figure out than a Rubik’s cube) or clubs like Drexel, which I simply haven’t seen enough of to have an opinion on. At the same time, if VCU- which by any tangible measurement was one of the two or three worst at-large teams in the field last year- could make a Final Four run, I see no reason why any of those listed above couldn’t win a few games and at least make a Sweet 16. If not go further.

And the funny thing is, if you’ve followed my writing through the years, you know that I’m hardly a small-school advocate. Never have been, and never really thought I’d be. Truth be told, I grew up in Big East country, watching Big East teams beat up on each other, like brothers in the backyard. As a general rule, I’d gladly take the 11-loss Big East team, over the four-loss Missouri Valley one. After all, there really is something to be said to be said for going out and earning your stripes every single night.

The problem is that- and I’m sorry for being blunt- those “power six” conferences really just aren’t all that good this year.

Seriously, think about it. Outside of the Big XII (which never seems to have a down year anymore), go ahead and name me a conference where wins can’t be had on any given night? The Big East may be tougher from top-to-bottom than ever before, but outside Syracuse, Marquette and maybe Georgetown, the conference lacks those upper-echelon “you can count on them to bring it every night” teams. The ACC is just “meh” beyond the top-four, and while hypothetically the Big Ten is deeper than ever before, does anyone really scare you outside Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan? The SEC looked deep a month ago, now everyone except Kentucky seems to be regressing to the mean (yeah, I’m looking at you, Mississippi State) or is at the very least beatable on any given night (Don’t deny it Florida and Vandy fans). Then there’s the Pac-12, and well… my goodness. I don’t know what to say about them that hasn’t already been said. Except that I’ve seen CSI episodes which are easier on the eyes than watching most of those teams play.

Now of course many of you are still sitting there thinking, “Whatever dude, it’s still tougher to do it night in and night in one of these major conferences, than play one tough game every couple weeks.” Well, you’re right, and again, I’d normally agree with you. Then again, have you seen the teams on the bubble this year? Illinois? NC State? Washington? Are you serious? I’d rather see the Baylor women’s team in the tourney than those clubs. If not, than at the very least can we admit that we’d be better off with 60 or 61 teams in the field than letting those awful teams in?

And really, that’s the point that I think gets missed in all this. This isn’t college football, where the BCS puts on a championship game, and the sole purpose of every other game is to sell tickets and get the highest TV ratings. No, this is a championship tournament, and the only goal of the NCAA Selection Committee should be to pick the 68 teams which will make that tournament the most compelling.

To which I ask you, why should conference affiliation matter? The TV money is already there, the tickets are already sold, so why not pick the 68 teams that are going to put on the best tournament? If that’s the only criteria, I ask you, who would you rather see playing in the middle of March: A veteran and confident team like Long Beach State? Or an NC State team that gagged at Cameron last week? A Wichita State club that plays for each other? Or a Washington club that collects stats like a fantasy team? A scrappy club like Iona, or an Illinois team that has quit on their coach so egregiously, that I actually think I saw Bruce Weber filling out job applications on the sideline the other night. You want the former in all three cases? Because I sure do.

Plus, let’s remember, the NCAA Tournament is of what the few sporting events we have that doesn’t make its bones off star power, but instead off the little guy. This tournament doesn’t need more second-tier major conference programs that can’t play; heck, it’s not like the casual sports fan knows anything about Illinois or Arizona anyway. Seriously, the average fan can’t name a single starter on Illinois any easier than they can Iona.

No, no. What this tournament needs is their VCU’s and Butler’s making deep runs. Forget star power, nobody knew who Shaka Smart was last March 1. By April 1 he was a household name. And if you think I’m just making stuff up, look at the numbers: Last year VCU and Butler made the Final Four… and it was also the highest-rated NCAA Tournament ever. Now part of that was the expanded cable coverage, sure. People still watched though.

Anyway, I’ve rambled on long enough, and by now, I think my point has been made. Yes it’s been a weird year in college basketball, but not necessarily a bad one, and while the teams at the top may be different, it doesn’t make the quality of play any better or worse. In conclusion, it’s time to embrace the mid-majors.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to run.

Long Beach State tips off in a minute, and I don’t want to miss it!

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About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.