NCAA Basketball Debate: Year of the Power 5 or Mid-Major?

March 2, 2015

It’s March. Before you read on any further, take a minute to let that sink in.

Caught you.

Seriously, take a breath and prepare yourself. The next 13 days until Selection Sunday are going to feel excruciatingly long, but keep in mind that we’ll be able to watch meaningful games in the middle of the afternoon in a little over a week. It’s a lot to keep track of and will require stamina for even the most diehard fans.

In less than 24 hours, conference tournaments will begin for a few of the smaller conferences (Atlantic Sun Conference, Horizon League, Patriot League). Not only does this mean that the postseason has sort of officially begun, but it also means that I can start filling out real brackets and not just mock ones using Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology predictions.

While the little guys don’t truly start to take center stage on television until this weekend, the start of conference tournaments is reason enough to entertain this week’s debate.

We’re bound to see upsets and Cinderellas. But as a whole, will this year’s NCAA Tournament be a showcase for the Power 5 conferences, or will a myriad of mid-majors crash the party heading into the second weekend of the Dance?

Naturally, we’ll use Lunardi’s most recent Bracketology predictions as the basis for this conversation.

This week, four teams receiving the top 16 seeds (No. 1 through 4 in each region) are from conferences outside of the Power 5 (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC). Although this is an increase by one over last week’s predictions by Lunardi, Gonzaga dropped a line, going from a No. 1 to a No. 2 after its first loss at home since 2011.

Since the top four seeds in each region are statistically the most likely to make it to the Final Four, it makes sense for us to take a closer look at the four mid-majors currently slated at one of those lines.


Current Lunardi seed: 2

ATC prediction: 2

Hardly considered an underdog thanks to routinely winning tournament games for over 15 years, the Bulldogs seem to have a difficult time performing as one of the top seeds. As a one seed in 2013, the ‘Zags flamed out against eventual Final Four participant Wichita State. If Gonzaga were to earn a No. or No. 3 seed, it would be a prime candidate to go down against one of those six or seven seeds from a major conference that is getting hot at the right time of year.

There is a decent balance of height on this team, but that could be said about the 2012-2013 team as well. The lack of quality competition on the schedule remains as a glaring issue, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bulldogs ended up being more of a disservice to the mid-majors’ quest to hold their own against the big boys.


Current Lunardi seed: 2

ATC prediction: 2

Once a member of the powerhouse Big East, Villanova was left behind as other former members of the conference joined leagues that would better position them for the inevitable changes to the college football landscape. That being the case, head coach Jay Wright has done a terrific job maintaining a level of excellence for his own squad among less stellar interleague competition.

The Wildcats are quietly undefeated against AP Top 25 competition, but that statistic needs to be asterisked. Three of those wins came against teams ranked somewhere between No. 20 and 25, and another came against Michigan when it was still highly rated. Like Gonzaga, the Wildcats are another team that could have a lot of trouble with a middle of the road power conference squad used to banging with the best in the country.

Wichita State

Current Lunardi seed: 4

ATC prediction: 3

The Shockers erased any doubt that they are the premier team in the Missouri Valley Conference this season by throttling Northern Iowa at home this past weekend. This is significant, because the winner of the MVC tournament is likely to move up a line compared to Lunardi’s current predictions assuming it is either Northern Iowa or Wichita State.

Wichita State isn’t the best team in the country at any particular facet of the game, but the Shockers are solid at every one of them save rebounding. This team can shoot from behind the arc when it matters, defend on-ball when it matters and go right at teams and draw fouls when needed. All of these factors, plus the fact that Gregg Marshall is one of the best young coaches in the game in my opinion, make the Shockers a dangerous mid-major.

Northern Iowa

Current Lunardi seed: 4

ATC prediction: 4

Keep in mind that while the Panthers surrendered the MVC regular season title last Saturday, Northern Iowa split the series with Wichita State this season. This team shoots the ball well because it takes good shots, using a lot of the shot clock in the process. The Panthers aren’t the kind of team that will blow out anyone, but they will keep it close with just about everyone.

I’m not sure how well prepared Northern Iowa is for teams that want to push the tempo, because it has been able to stifle most of the conference competition with ease. The difference between getting knocked out on the first weekend and making a nice tournament run will be how well the Panthers can get back on transition defense against more athletic squads.

The Rest of the Pack

Of the 32 automatic bids doled out to conference champions, 27 of them come from leagues ranging from mid-major to small based on a subjective scale. I’m not going to cover every one, but the following teams will likely have an impact on whether the mid-majors are well represented by the Sweet 16.

Boise State

Leon Rice has people in Boise thinking sports beyond football season. With one of the nation’s best scorers in Derrick Marks, the Broncos are capable of pulling off an upset or two as a 10 to 12 seed.


The move to the Big East has been good for the Bulldogs, which are currently ranked in the Top 25 and are right in the thick of a very competitive conference. They’re scrappy, with no one over 6’9″ yet decent rebounding statistics, which should make them a tough out.


The first team to beat Gonzaga at home in four years is led by guard Tyler Haws, who is fourth in the nation in points per game. The team as a whole is ninth in Ken Pom’s adjusted offense rankings, so expect the Cougars to play an exciting brand of basketball that will test almost anyone they play.


Last year’s tournament darling has had to deal with injuries, suspensions and a wealth of other issues that could be summed up loosely as “bad luck”. I wouldn’t want to play them as a Power 5 squad, though…trust me. I know. From experience.

Murray State

Leaving Nashville as OVC tournament champions is a must for the Racers, but if they do they would come into the tournament on the second longest win streak in the country. That gives players confidence to pull off major upsets.

San Diego State

One of the most consistent teams from year to year in the Mountain West Conference, the success of the Aztecs in the tournament often comes down to where they have to play their first round game. Hopefully not somewhere in the Eastern time zone.


If anything, the players from last year’s team will want to prove to the committee that it made a mistake by leaving the Mustangs out of the 2014 tournament.


Fran Dunphy coached teams will always be a tough out in the tournament. This is a given.


To some people, the Tulsa gig is a downgrade for head coach Frank Haith. But while his Golden Hurricane are likely bound for the NCAA Tournament, his former employer is mired deep in the heap of cow dung known as the bottom half of the SEC.


The “Havoc” defense is most effective against teams that don’t handle the ball well, but that hasn’t prevented Shaka Smart’s teams from performing well regardless in past NCAA tournaments. The loss of Briante Weber may be too much for this team against Big Dance competition, however.

The Verdict

Now that you’ve seen the large handful of mid-major teams who will be metaphorically carrying the flag for underdogs everywhere, it’s time to make a call.

While I’m a huge proponent of David taking down Goliath, I don’t know if this is the year that we’ll see the mid-majors really punch the big boys in the mouth. At the very top, only Wichita State strikes me as the type of team who has the right combination of experience, talent and coaching to make a serious run at the Final Four.

As for the rest of the pack, which ultimately determine whether it is a year of the mid-major or Power 5, it’s hard to say whether all ten of those teams will even make the tournament. With so many teams from the Big 12, Pac-12 and ACC still having a shot to play their way in to the Dance with a good conference tournament showing, it seems likely that at least a couple of those squads will disappointed come Selection Sunday.

There aren’t very many great teams in college basketball this year, but there are a lot of solid ones dispersed throughout the Power 5 Conferences. These solid teams will comprise the majority of seeds 5 through 12, making it extremely difficult for the mid-majors to break through.

If more teams like Boise State, Dayton and San Diego State were projected to receive No. 11 to No. 13 seeds, I’d have to seriously reconsider my verdict. In that scenario, a win or two by several mid-major would be considered a fantastic feat. But it seems more likely that those teams will receive seeds ranging from No. 9 to No. 11. More is expected from those seeds, yet I think the mid-majors will fail to deliver.

– K. Becks

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