Stability creates success for mid-major programs

Updated: March 21, 2013, 8:52 PM ET
Associated Press

Coaching stability has helped several mid-major women's basketball programs make going to the NCAA tournament almost an annual tradition.

Schools such as Marist and Liberty often keep their staffs intact and run the same system each year. While they can't recruit a Brittney Griner or a Skylar Diggins, they sign players who fit their systems -- and who run them effectively.

Marist is making its eighth straight appearance. Gonzaga and South Dakota State are making their fifth straight trips to the tournament. Middle Tennessee's back for the ninth time in the last 10 years. Liberty's here for the 15th time in the last 17 seasons, while Chattanooga earned its ninth bid in the last 13 years.

And these schools are not just happy to there. They occasionally do some damage as well.

Marist has advanced beyond the first round four of the last six years. Gonzaga has gone at least as far as the regional semifinals three straight years. Green Bay, a mid-major program that has made a couple of recent coaching changes, is making its eighth tournament appearance in the last 10 years and has advanced beyond the first round three straight seasons.

"I wonder how does Marist get in there every year, how does Gonzaga get in there every year, how does Chattanooga get in there every year," Green Bay coach Kevin Borseth said. "They're probably wondering how does Green Bay get in there every year."

Said Marist coach Brian Giorgis: "I wish I had an answer. I'd bottle it and sell it."

Consistency at the top is part of the answer.

Unlike their counterparts on the men's side -- who often jump to bigger programs after winning at a mid-major or lower program -- these women's coaches stay put and perfect their approach.

"If you look at every one of those coaches, you (usually) have coaches there who are probably all in their 50s," said Carey Green, who's in his 14th season coaching Liberty. "Experience is probably a key. I don't think there's a lot of fire, spit and vinegar. That's how we all start off, with a lot of blind enthusiasm. The coaches you're talking about at those programs, we have enthusiasm, but we're not blind to the realities of things."

That experience is most evident at Montana, where Grizzlies coach Robin Selvig is in his 35th year and making his 20th NCAA tournament appearance. Although Montana hasn't won a tournament game since 1995, the Grizzlies earn their way into the field more often than not.

Giorgis is in his 11th season at Marist. This marks Kelly Graves' 13th season at Gonzaga. Wes Moore has coached Chattanooga since 1998. Rick Insell is in his eighth season at Middle Tennessee.

Graves notes that Gonzaga might not fit this category anymore, even though they are not a member of one of the six major BCS conferences. Just as the Gonzaga men's basketball program has developed into a national heavyweight with its consistent success, Graves believes the women's team has outgrown the mid-major tag.

"We're not in love with the label of mid-major because I don't think anything we do is really mid-major," Graves said. "We're in the top 15 in the nation in attendance. Almost every kid I recruit has been offered by multiple major-conference schools."

That's not necessarily the case at the other programs from outside the major conferences that make the NCAA tournament just about every year. But because the coaches have stayed put for so long, they've been able to recruit ideal fits for their system.

For example, Liberty leads the nation in rebound margin -- the 11th straight season it has ranked among the nation's top five teams in this category -- with a roster that includes five players 6-foot-2 or taller.

"Attractive winning programs attract good ballplayers," Green said. "We've been blessed with some tall ones."

There are other mid-major teams in the field also have long NCAA tournament streaks, though they haven't enjoyed as much success as Marist or Green Bay. Fresno State is making it sixth straight tournament appearance. Princeton and Hampton are in the tournament for the fourth consecutive year. Navy, Prairie View A&M and Tennessee-Martin are making their third straight trips. None of those schools has won a tournament game during their respective streaks.

But not all the strong mid-majors have been able to avoid coaching searches.

Fresno State had to switch coaches last year. Green Bay made coaching changes in 2007 and again last year. But the story behind Green Bay's moves shows why some coaches don't mind staying put at programs outside the major conferences.

Borseth left Green Bay for Michigan in 2007 and was replaced by Matt Bollant, who took the Illinois job last spring. Borseth built Michigan into an NCAA contender, but when his old job opened back up last spring, Borseth left the Big Ten behind.

His reasons may help explain why many coaches at mid-major powers decide to stay put.

"For me, it was a family decision to go back (to Green Bay) and live life," Borseth said. "Living is about enjoying life, not work. Not that you don't have to work at the mid-major level, but I think life at the BCS level, you're really busy. You sell your soul to the company store. Your whole life is about that. That's your life. ... I'm fortunate enough to go back to Green Bay, to an area close to home that I really like, to a program I'm familiar with and to be able to breathe again."


Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press

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