The NCAA tournament continues this weekend with the Final Four, consisting of Butler, Michigan State, West Virginia, and Duke. Butler is one of the real stories of this tournament- playing in the Final Four only six miles from their campus in Indianapolis. The other angle to the Butler story is the presence of the so called Mid-Major in the Final Four. Every year during the tournament, the talking heads discuss the Cinderella stories of teams like Northern Iowa, St. Mary’s and Cornell and then get into debates whether teams like Xavier, Butler, and Gonzaga are mid-majors or not. The term brings out real emotion, with angry denials from their coaches and players, such as Xavier’s coach Chris Mack, and players on the Butler team. Regardless, of what your belief is of the definition of which teams are Mid-Majors, it’s fascinating to think of how these teams rose to battle for Sweet 16’s, Final 4’s, and possibly even National Championships.
The New York times last month published a study that gives some insight into the drivers of success for mid-majors. The study was commissioned by Dave Telep, the National Recruiting Director of Scout.com, and researched and written by Drew Cannon in the summer of 2009, analyzing 32 players who made first-team all-league in mid-major conferences.
Cannon’s categorized the players who excelled in this study into 9 categories (# of players in each category in parenthesis—total players 32 )
- The High Major Talent (3)
- The Lucky Foreign Find (2)
- The Hidden Gem (4)
- The Skinny/Slow Shooter (9)
- The Skinny/Ultraquick 2-Guard (4)
- The Skinny Skilled Big Man (5)
- The Undersized Forward (2)
- The Late Arrival Big Man (2)
- The Intangibles Freak (1)
For me, the interesting thing to focus on is what is really actionable for mid-majors vs just luck in getting the players the BCS conferences don’t want. If I was a mid-major Athletic Director, I’d categorize these as the following.
- Undersized without the Prototype Physical Build (# 5, 6, 7)
- Not Athletic- but has basketball skills (# 4)
- International Focus and Prioritization (# 2)
Numbers 1, 3, 8, and 9 feel like simply good fortune and luck. However, the other ones are what the mid-majors have to build their entire scouting and focus on. If they are lucky, those skinny guys (# 5, 6, 7) start to fill out in college. Plus, the unathletic guys who can shoot (#4) in today’s perimeter and guard oriented game can often single handedly keep teams in the game.
Now, the X factor is the International Focus and Prioritization, where it seems some schools could try to get an advantage by out hustling the larger schools for talent in foreign countries. Being the first school to connect with a talent in a country like Australia or Argentina while the big schools are focused in the US. However, this seems like a slim opportunity as in this more globally connected world, even top international high school players will have clear ideas and information on the top ranked athletic programs with histories and would prefer the safety and the NBA bound track record of the BCS schools.
However, If the mid-major’s recruiting efforts are focused on my categories # 1 and # 2, they can then get some players who improve and fill out physically while they are actually in college, have some true shooters on the team, and play together for 4 years, they have a reasonable shot to compete against younger, inexperienced BCS schools in pressure filled NCAA tournament games. Following this blueprint, I look forward to continued NCAA tournaments full of Mid-Major schools in the Sweet 16 and even the Final Four. The Madness will continue!