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Carson: Give mid-major teams a shot at the Big Dance

| Monday, March 6, 2017

With a loss to No. 21 Wichita State in the Missouri Valley championship game Sunday afternoon, Illinois State concludes its regular season with a 27-6 record. The Redbirds lost just once in conference play — at Wichita State — and, despite this, will be anxiously awaiting Selection Sunday, with their NCAA tournament fate up in the air.

In truth, Illinois State is a bubble team, and it probably deserves to be there. Despite how poor of a metric RPI is, the Redbirds have just two wins over teams ranked in the top 100 of the stat, far fewer than most of the major-conference teams it’s fighting for a berth against — Wake Forest has eight, for instance, while Iowa’s got nine, Vanderbilt sits with 10 and Illinois has 11. When you look at it through that lens, it seems unlikely to give justification for an Illinois State berth; the Redbirds just haven’t beat, or played, much of anybody this season.

But as always, there’s a flip side to this. That same Wake Forest team? It has 12 losses and finished .500 in conference play. Vanderbilt has 14, including a loss to a miserable Missouri team. Illinois and Iowa each have 13, with the Illini going just 8-10 in a bad Big Ten season. When you consider those figures, it seems equally unlikely to give justification for any of these teams to make the field. Is a Demon Deacons team, which is just 8-12 against the RPI top 100, actually any more deserving than a Redbirds squad that went only 2-4?

This is the broader issue we’re going to see with the 2017 tournament — as has been noted by many, the bubble is extremely weak this year, with many teams in the mix that would’ve stood little to no chance in years past.

The weak bubble, though, provides the perfect opportunity for the selection committee to prioritize racking up wins, like Illinois State has, over necessarily racking up the best wins, as many major-conference teams have. There’s nothing to get excited about with an Illinois or Vanderbilt — we know these teams, while good, haven’t been good enough consistently to have any claim to being one of the best teams in college basketball. And while it seems irresponsible to think of Illinois State as one of the sport’s 20 best teams, it also hasn’t really had the chance to prove that it isn’t.

Think back 11 years to one of the best stories the sport has ever seen: George Mason, the No. 11 seed from the Colonial Athletic Association, made a run to the Final Four. George Mason was the first true mid-major to make the Final Four in decades — let’s not consider those UNLV, Massachusetts or Utah squads to be mid-majors — and its “Cinderella”-esque run captured the imagination of a country.

Yet, what people often forget about George Mason’s run is that it almost didn’t happen. The Patriots went 23-7 during the regular season but didn’t win their conference tournament, putting them squarely on the bubble as Selection Sunday came. When the Patriots’ name was announced, after a season where they recorded few notable wins, the criticism was wide-ranging from many who thought George Mason didn’t deserve a spot in the tournament at all.

Man, were they wrong.

Five years later, after the field’s expansion to 68 teams and the introduction of the First Four, Virginia Commonwealth repeated George Mason’s accomplishment as a mid-major No. 11 seed to reach the Final Four.

In both cases, the committee took a chance on a mid-major and was rewarded. Why not do the same this year for Illinois State?

However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t end with an anecdote on the other thing 2006 George Mason and 2011 VCU have in common: a February win over Wichita State.

Back then, ESPN sponsored the BracketBusters event, which was designed in 2002 to give mid-major schools more exposure to chase down at-large berths to the NCAA tournament with a marquee, on-TV matchup against other contending schools. But the event was discontinued as interest waned — and with it, the key game that could have secured a spot for Illinois State.

BracketBusters is long dead. Hopefully, Illinois State’s tournament hopes didn’t suffer the same fate Sunday.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Alex Carson

Alex Carson graduated from Notre Dame in 2017 after majoring in Applied and Computational Mathematics and Statistics and living in O’Neill Hall. Hailing from the Indianapolis area, but born in Youngstown, Ohio, Carson is a Cleveland sports fan convinced that he’s already lived the “best day of his life.” At The Observer, Carson was first a Sports Writer, then served as an Associate Sports Editor (2015/16) and an Assistant Managing Editor (2016/17), before finishing his tenure as a Senior Sports Writer. A man of strong convictions, he ardently believes that Carly Rae Jepsen's 2015 release E•MO•TION is the greatest album of his generation, and wakes up early on Saturday mornings to listen, or occasionally watch, his favorite least-favorite sports team, Aston Villa. When he isn’t writing, Carson spends his time counting down the days to the next running of the Indianapolis 500 and reminding people that the Victory March starts with the lyric, “Rally sons of Notre Dame,” not “Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame.”

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