January 26, 2012

Mid-major teams like UT Arlington expect to compete with big schools

For UT Arlington forward LaMarcus Reed, it's not difficult to explain the mindset of mid-majors and the reasons behind the success the schools have had in men's basketball.

For UT Arlington forward LaMarcus Reed, it's not difficult to explain the mindset of mid-majors and the reasons behind the success the schools have had in men's basketball.

After all, they have veteran leadership with almost a zero percent chance of a player leaving early for the NBA. They play defense. And, most important, they expect to win.

"Our attitude as mid-majors is that we don't view beating a school from a bigger conference as an upset," Reed said. "We look at it as we expect to win and compete."

The Mavericks, ranked No. 19 in the mid-major poll by, are in the midst of one of their better seasons, and should be one of the favorites to earn the Southland Conference's automatic NCAA Tournament bid in the league tournament. But UTA is just one of several mid-majors making its presence felt nearly three months into the season. Six mid-major teams are ranked in the coaches' Top 25, including four in the top 15 (Murray State, San Diego State, Creighton and UNLV).

Why the surge?

"With the success mid-majors have had in the NCAA Tournament the past few years, a lot more respect is being shown," said Murray State coach Steve Prohm, whose team is the last unbeaten in Division I. "And all of the mid-majors at this point are used to playing in big games. There's not that intimidation factor."

It showed in last year's NCAA Tournament with five mid-majors (VCU, Richmond, San Diego State, BYU and Butler) making the Sweet 16, and Butler and VCU advancing to the Final Four.

The Mountain West had two teams in the Sweet 16 (SDSU and BYU), the same as the Big Ten, SEC and Big East. And more than the Big 12 and Pac-10 -- which each had one. Only the ACC had three teams reach the Sweet 16 last season.

"I thought last year was the breakthrough year for success in the tournament," TCU coach Jim Christian said. The MWC "was just as good as the year before, but the matchups were bad. This is one of the premier basketball leagues in the country, period."

Another reason for the rise of the mid-majors, according to Christian and Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett, has been the number of talented basketball players throughout the country.

There isn't as wide of a talent gap as there used to be between the major conferences and mid-majors. A big-time program, such as Kansas or Kentucky, might sign an NBA-bound player who leaves after his freshman or sophomore year, but a four-year player at a mid-major school can usually play to the level of a highly touted underclassmen.

"Nobody has those big difference-makers for four years anymore," said Bennett, whose team is ranked No. 20. "And you don't need 60 players in basketball. You really need three or four difference-makers, and three or four other good players, and you can be really good."

And, come tournament time, the Cinderella-team formula generally consists of a core group of mid-major players who have played 120 to 125 games together knocking out a more well-known school whose underclassmen have played only 25 to 30 games together.

"The feeling you've been through it, you have that confidence, that experience," Bennett said. "That's huge."

With that history of success, more mid-majors have been invited to the Big Dance. Conferences, such as the West Coast, with Saint Mary's and Gonzaga, and the Missouri Valley, with Creighton and Wichita State, have been known to receive multiple bids.

Still, that hasn't filtered all the way down to the UTAs of the world, which need to win the conference tournament for a berth. But, with a new arena and a move in July to the Western Athletic Conference, the Mavericks believe they are putting themselves in a better position for that to happen.

"We're still a ways from that, but we'd like to build toward that," UTA coach Scott Cross said. "The key for mid-majors right now is to get as many signature wins as you can, and have an outstanding conference record.

"And schools like Butler and VCU and Gonzaga have laid a blueprint to show it's possible to make a run once you get in."

Drew Davison, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @drewdavison

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