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USA TODAY
Scott Gleeson, @ScottMGleeson, USA TODAY Sports

Gonzaga coach Mark Few isn't shy in admitting his disdain for the label "midmajor."

Yet Few, in his 15th season as Bulldogs coach, can't evade the term, which has become a way to distinguish Division I basketball leagues, particularly in the NCAA tournament when teams with double-digit seeds upset top seeds.

While the classification of what makes a team a midmajor has been debated by coaches and the news media over the years, Gonzaga, a school with an enrollment of less than 10,000 that plays in the West Coast Conference, in many ways epitomizes the term. It once was an underdog basketball team that used a storybook run to become an NCAA tournament darling.

Programs such as Gonzaga and No.2 Wichita State have turned their March Madness success into higher national profiles and financial gain over the last decade. Their success also raises a valid question: Is the term midmajor becoming irrelevant?

"I don't even know what midmajor means anymore," Few said. "I just think it's funny that we as a society have to put a label on everything. ... All I know is for back-to-back years we're going to have a non-football or non-BCS school as a No.1 seed in the (NCAA tournament)."

Gonzaga will play in its 16th consecutive NCAA tournament next week after winning the WCC tournament. It's a streak that started with a Cinderella run to the Elite Eight in 1999, when Few was an assistant coach.

In the third round of last year's NCAA tournament, Wichita State upset No.1-seeded Gonzaga in the third round. Now the Shockers have their sights set on a No.1 seed on Selection Sunday as the only undefeated team in the country and the automatic qualifier from the Missouri Valley Conference.

But many would consider the Shockers a midmajor team.

"It depends on how you define midmajor," Belmont coach Rick Byrd said. "Is Wichita State really a midmajor? Because they have a huge fan base with the budget of a power school. What's happening is we're losing the so-called midmajors to conference realignment. When you make it to the Final Four, more revenue comes in and that sparks a trend. I think it depends on what kind of school you're at, but when you invest in basketball, you can build a major program in any conference. I think Gonzaga paved the way for that."

This season, Brigham Young is the only team from a conference outside the top 10 leagues in the Ratings Percentage Index that's projected to make the NCAA tournament's field of 68 as an at-large entrant. That would be the lowest number since the NCAA field expanded to 68 in 2011. The number has steadily decreased since six midmajors earned at-large bids in 2006.

Last season, Wichita State was one of three teams from leagues outside the RPI's top 10 to garner an at-large NCAA tournament bid. Last season's MVC champion, Creighton, is now in the restructured Big East Conference, ultimately taking away a recognizable program that has a player of the year candidate in Doug McDermott.

"I think conference realignment is hurting midmajors as much as anything," Indiana State coach Greg Lansing said.

Creighton's move to the Big East follows a growing trend. George Mason, Virginia Commonwealth and Butler all capitalized on NCAA runs to move from midmajor to higher-profile leagues since 2010.

"Realignment has drastically affected the chances of midmajors getting an at-large bid in the tournament," said Green Bay coach Brian Wardle, whose team lost in the Horizon League tournament and is one of many bubble teams hoping for an NCAA tournament bid. "I think America wants to see a little school like Green Bay in the field, not some seventh- or eighth-place finisher from a power conference."

 

March 14, 2014

 

 
 

 

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