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NCAA Tournament: Mid-major trend unmistakable in 2013

Published March 19, 2013 3:38 pm

College basketball • Tourney mainstays Gonzaga and Butler show how it's done.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The size of a college basketball program, apparently, no longer matters to the NCAA Tournament selection committee.

In a year when power-conference members like Kentucky, Alabama, Arizona State, Baylor and Iowa had their bubbles burst on Selection Sunday, a handful of mid-majors received at-large invitations to the tournament.

Virginia Commonwealth, Middle Tennessee, Colorado State, Boise State, Saint Mary's, Temple and La Salle failed to get automatic bids after losing in their conference tournaments.

Still, they dance.

So, what in the name of Gordon Hayward is going on here?

Utah fans know Hayward, of course. The Jazz's rising star played collegiately at Butler, which defeated Syracuse and Kansas State in the regionals at EnergySolutions Arena en route to the 2010 national championship game.

Without Hayward, the Bulldogs did it again in 2011 and, along with the decade-long rise of Gonzaga, have written a blueprint that other mid-majors are following with increased success.

"Butler, to me, is the gold standard for mid-major programs," said Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen. "So much of what we do — or try to do — is modeled on Butler."

It's working for Bucknell, which is 28-5 this season and plays No. 6 seed Butler in the tournament on Thursday night in Lexington, Ky.

Out West, Gonzaga is the poster child for mid-major basketball. The Bulldogs are the No. 1 seed in the regional after a 31-2 season that included losses to Illinois of the Big Ten and — you guessed it — Butler.

As winner of the West Coast Conference, however, Gonzaga is an automatic qualifier.

The at-large mid-majors most highly regarded by the selection committee are UNLV and VCU — a pair of No. 5 seeds.

The Rebels and Rams earned their seeding the same way. The were competitive in quality conferences, they played difficult nonconference schedules and they had success while doing so.

Ditto for Middle Tennessee.

The Blue Raiders dominated the Sun Belt Conference regular season but were upset by Florida International in the semifinals.

After the loss, coach Kermit Davis remained confident his team had done enough to get to the tournament, despite a low profile nationally.

"Based on what we've done ... there's no question we should get in," Davis told USA Today. "We've done everything we're asked to do at the mid-major level — scheduling in the nonconference and playing tough teams outside of conference."

Middle Tennessee finished 28-5, ranked 11th in nonconference strength of schedule and owned an RPI of 29. It also defeated SEC Tournament champion Mississippi.

"We looked at a Middle Tennessee team that is a veteran team, and their ability to win on the road," selection committee chairman Mike Bobinski said. "They had no rough patches along the way, and their win over Ole Miss looks better at this point in time."