I haven’t always been a huge basketball fan. Coming to a basketball crazed school like Murray State will change just about anyone’s mind.
Since I’ve been here, I’ve fallen in love with the college basketball world. I may have also developed a man crush or two on some of our players, but that’s another column for another day.
One of my favorite things about basketball at Murray State is getting the chance to watch a mid-major school change the tide in NCAA men’s basketball.
For the last few years, small basketball programs have been significantly improving, consistently winning games each season
and making deep runs in the tournament each March. Several elite mid-major programs such as Gonzaga, Xavier, Creighton, Butler and yes our very own Murray State Racers, are changing the landscape in college basketball.
It is a trend that has been around for a while, and a major part of what makes college basketball so appealing is watching Cinderella teams emerge each year and make miraculous, unexpected runs through the season. These magical runs are becoming more and more common.
An unlikely George Mason team started a pattern when they defeated sixth-seeded Michigan State, third seeded North Carolina and finally, the No. 1-seed Connecticut Huskies in the NCAA Tournament in 2006. Reaching the Final Four cemented their place in history as one of the most memorable underdogs in college basketball history.
The trend has continued on an almost yearly basis. In 2008, the Davidson Wildcats, led by Stephen Curry, played their way into the Elite Eight and nearly upset Kansas to go to the Final Four.
Several mid-majors made impressive runs in the 2010 NCAA Tournament including Cornell’s appearance in the Sweet 16, Northern Iowa’s upset of No. 1 seed Kansas, and Butler’s run all the way to the national championship game where they would lose by two points to Duke.
Butler would return to the championship game again a year later, only to lose the title again. The Bulldogs had company, however, as Head Coach Shaka Smart (by far the coolest name in sports) led his Virginia Commonwealth to the Final Four, marking the first time two mid-majors were represented in the final rounds of the tournament. This slow shift to competitive equality between historically dominant programs and upcoming mid-majors is no anomaly.
The top programs in the country – Kentucky being a prime example – are no longer classic collegiate teams, but rather gateways to the NBA for the top high school recruits each year. Kentucky plays teams of all freshmen, only to be replaced the next year by another all freshmen squad, thus we see the tide begin to turn.
The difference between the huge programs and the mid-majors is veteran leadership and player development.
Sure, Kentucky proved championships can be won with freshman teams. That’s not a strategy that is going to work every year, however. Once in a while they’ll get that group of freakish athletes who are so physically dominant they don’t need to be coached and developed, but it’s not a strategy that’s going to consistently win championships. And so, the gap is diminishing between the small programs and the Goliaths of the sport.
The mid-majors are still recruiting athletes who fit into their style of play. They must have coaches who can actually coach players and develop them as athletes and as people in order to be successful.
Mid-majors have players who stay for four and sometimes even five years, which provides the veteran leadership top programs simply don’t have. Guys like Isaiah Canaan, who choose to come back for their senior season are the reason programs like Murray State are slowly approaching the same level as Duke, Kentucky, Kansas and North Carolina.
If I were a betting man, I would most certainly wager that a mid-major team will finally get over the hump and win the National Championship in the coming years. It may not be this season, but the day is coming when David will finally topple Goliath.
What a sight it will be to see a program like Gonzaga, Butler, or, dare I say, even Murray State, at the pinnacle of the college basketball world.
Column by Jonathan Ferris, Sports Editor.