When Jim Larranaga stunningly led 11th-seeded George Mason to the Final Four in 2006, he predicted it was only the start of traditional mid-major teams crashing the NCAA tournament’s national semifinals.
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Five years later, eighth-seeded Butler and 11th-seeded Virginia Commonwealth have turned Larranaga prophetic with both of them crashing the Final Four in Houston. It is a repeat appearance for Butler, which lost to Duke in the national championship game last season.
With Butler (27-8) and VCU (28-11) playing each other in the first of Saturday’s national semifinals, a mid-major is again guaranteed to be in the national title game.
Now, Larranaga has another bold prediction: A mid-major will win the national championship within the next three years.
“They’ve been knocking on the door,” said Larranaga, whose team had a 1-1 record against VCU this season and advanced to the third round of the NCAA tournament as a No. 8 seed. “It’s not going away. The parity is there. It’s going to happen.”
Traditional mid-majors have snuck up on most college basketball fans, but their rise has actually been in the works for years. In honor of the Final Four, here are four reasons they are breaking through:
It used to be that college basketball’s bluebloods were the only ones whose games received national television exposure. In turn, most recruits wanted to play for those teams. But as cable television started showing mid-major games in the 1990s, recruits realized they could attend those schools and still get that exposure. That’s allowed conferences such as the Colonial Athletic Association, whose teams include VCU and George Mason, to sign better players. In fact, VCU has had a first-round pick in each of the past two NBA drafts, a feat once considered unfathomable for a conference like the CAA. Butler forward Gordon Hayward was the ninth pick in last year’s NBA draft.
In their words: “Our conference is to me by far the most underrated league in the country,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said. “Everything that we’ve done here in March has been a direct result of the CAA.”
Development of players
The blessing of signing a top-flight recruit can become a problem if he leaves for the NBA after one season. That turnover causes continuity problems for major programs that mid-major teams rarely encounter and has watered down college basketball’s overall talent. Instead of a one-and-done player, mid-majors generally get players still developing who get the opportunity to play right away. Their players get to build invaluable continuity with their teammates over the years that most big programs never get a chance to do. Now, when Butler junior point guard Shelvin Mack is facing heralded freshmen playing for heavy favorites in the NCAA tournament, he’s not only just as talented, but perhaps more importantly, he has more experience and better rapport with his teammates.
In their words: “They’re playing with the guys that you look at them when they’re juniors and seniors and think, ‘How in the world did they get them?’ ” Kansas coach Bill Self said of VCU and Butler.
Gone are the days of mid-majors feeling inferior to big-name teams. Now, many mid-major players have previously competed against players in the power conferences at the AAU and high school levels. That gives mid-major players confidence and for good reason, because some of them have already had success against stars at elite programs. When George Mason defeated Connecticut and its star forward Rudy Gay to make the Final Four in 2006, Patriots forward Will Thomas told his team before the game that he wasn’t going to lose to Gay, who he had a 7-0 record against in high school.
In their words: “We never talk about what we can’t do and how it’ll be a big surprise if this happens,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said. “We talk about here’s what we need to do, let’s go out and do it.”
Have less talent or size than a big-name team? Don’t worry, because the 3-point shot has become the ultimate equalizer for mid-majors. But now it’s not just about having one or two players who can make 3s. It’s about every player on the court being able to do it. That’s a weapon VCU has lived by this NCAA tournament. The Rams have attempted at least 20 3-pointers in each of their five victories and are shooting a sizzling 44 percent for the tournament, highlighted by a 12-of-25 blitz in their upset of top-seeded Kansas.
In their words: “If you’ve got one guy who can shoot the 3, a good defensive can shut that guy down,” Larranaga said. “But if you have five guys who can shoot the 3, it’s very, very hard to guard all of them. You’ve got to stretch you defense out all over the place and that opens up driving lanes.”
And while mid-majors have been the toast of the Final Four recently, Larranaga is also realistic about them. He’s not predicting an all mid-major Final Four anytime soon.
“Now, that,” Larranaga said, “is going to be hard to accomplish.”