Gary Johnson can't remember where or when he first heard the term mid-major.
Johnson, who has worked at the NCAA for 20 years, handling statistics for men's basketball and aiding the NCAA Tournament selection committee, thinks it was sometime in the last 10-15 years.
"When I first got here, there wasn't a thing called 'mid-majors,' but then I started hearing the term and it took me a while to find out what it meant," Johnson said. "... I don't know the origin of it."
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So, what does it mean? Well, Johnson, like the rest of us, still isn't so sure.
If there are 31 conferences, then is it the middle 10 -- from 11-20?
Maybe, but then that would mean a conference like the Missouri Valley, which has cracked the top 10 on a number of occasions, would be a high-major conference.
So, that can't be right, can it?
Are there mid-major conferences or mid-major teams? Can you have a high-major team in a mid-major conference, like Gonzaga?
So, why do we in college basketball use a term that lacks a true definition?
No one seems to know.
"It's such a poor descriptor," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "Why do we have to label teams and programs and conferences? Are you mid-major because you're on ESPN and not on CBS, which goes into every home and ESPN doesn't? No, because mid-major doesn't describe the level of talent.
"If I were to guess the origin, I would assume it came from one of the BCS leagues," Few said.
Few has a good point. Are perennially poor basketball schools Penn State, Oregon State, Washington State and Baylor considered high-majors over a school like Gonzaga just because of league affiliation?
Unfortunately, the answer might be yes.
I've always felt uncomfortable with the label of mid-major because the term low-major never gets used. There's no way that a conference like the MVC should be considered the same as the Northeast. The MAC has oodles of more talent than the MEAC, yet both of these leagues get lumped into one big broth, too.
Few's definition of a high-major program (and he doesn't use that term, either) includes where the school finished in the NCAA Tournament, their rank, national TV appearances and where they factor into recruiting.
"Look, either you're a great team/program, a good team/program, or a bad team or program," Few said. "You can't expect the league to carry you."
But there is one major difference -- NCAA Tournament bids. If we're going to separate teams into categories, then we have to deal with the Tournament as a barometer.
The big six conferences will never get only one bid to the NCAA Tournament as long as the selection committee is dominated by administrators from these conferences. That's why the Tier 1 conferences are: Big East, Big Ten, ACC, SEC, Big 12 and Pac-10.
Now, not every school in these six conferences is a major player, but because they do play in these leagues, they can get a bid by finishing as low as sixth or seventh in a given year. Consistent multiple bids means they are a Tier 1 conference.
Tier 2 conferences can get as few as one bid in a given year but could go up to as many as four bids. Conference USA will drop down from Tier 1 to Tier 2 in 2005-06 when it loses Cincinnati, Louisville, Marquette, DePaul and South Florida to the Big East, Charlotte and Saint Louis to the A-10 and TCU to the MWC. It's replacing those schools with Marshall, UTEP, SMU, Rice, Tulsa and Central Florida.
The other Tier 2 conferences that can fluctuate from one bid to as many as four are: MWC, WAC, A-10, WCC, Horizon, MVC and MAC.
The Tier 3 conferences, barring fluke years like when the Mid-Continent had two teams in 1990 and '91, the MAAC had two in '95 or when the Big West was under the dominance of UNLV in the early '90s, are almost always locked into one bid.
They are: America East; Atlantic Sun; Big Sky, Big South, Big West, Colonial, Ivy, Metro Atlantic, Mid-Continent, MEAC, Northeast, Ohio Valley, Patriot, Southern, Southland, SWAC and Sun Belt.
A few individual schools in this above list are considered a tier above, like Penn and Princeton in the Ivy, Pacific in the Big West (Utah State is moving to the WAC next season), Manhattan in the MAAC, Murray State in the OVC, Western Kentucky in the Sun Belt, Old Dominion and VCU in the CAA and, for the last two years, Vermont in the America East (BU and Northeastern have had their moments).
“ If we're going to separate teams into categories, then we have to deal with the Tournament as a barometer. ”
But the reality is these schools are locked into conferences that are destined for one bid.
In the last five years, 18 conferences received only one bid each year to the NCAA Tournament.
During the '90s, the list included 10 conferences. As you can see, the list is growing and that means more bids for the Tier 1 and Tier 2 schools.
Is Gonzaga a Tier 1 school? Yes. Is the WCC a Tier 2 conference? Yes.
Gonzaga is at a different level than Loyola Marymount, but they're in the same conference.
The same is true in the Big 12 from Kansas to Baylor or Arizona to Washington State in the Pac-10 (even after the Cougars beat the Wildcats). Washington State isn't getting a national TV game anytime soon and they don't recruit the same caliber of players.
We know we're not going to get rid of the mid-major tag. It's hard to corral a label that has become part of the college basketball vernacular.
But could we at least try to narrow the term? If you don't like Tier 1, 2 or 3, then at least don't blanket mid-major for everything outside of the BCS conferences. It's simply not factually correct.
That's why the Mid-Major polls are baseless when they have the possibility to include a range of teams from Gonzaga to Savannah State.
Conferences that earn multiple bids every NCAA Tournament are on another level. The conferences that can go from one bid to four are on a second level and every other conference is down below that.
That's it. That's how the NCAA Tournament selection committee has unofficially partitioned off the bids and, without using any terminology, has labeled and categorized conferences.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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