Tournament perfect stage for mid-majors to shine
The NCAA Tournament selection committee got it right.
The scores don't lie.
The mid-majors continue to trump the high-major conferences when given the chance on a neutral court. They can't get the games during the season so they take full advantage once the NCAA Tournament begins.
Wisconsin-Milwaukee dumped Alabama Thursday in the first "upset" of the day. The Panthers were the No. 12 seed, the one that always finds a way to win, while the Tide were downgraded to a No. 5.
The Panthers earned the automatic berth out of the Horizon League, but they might have warranted a bid if they had been beaten in the conference tournament like Nevada and Pacific were last week.
The Wolf Pack got in on their own merit out of the WAC and promptly dismissed Texas out of the Big 12. Pacific lost to Utah State in the Big West final but earned a bid and beat back Pittsburgh out of the Big East.
So, in case you're keeping score, that was:
- Horizon 1, SEC 0
- WAC 1, Big 12 0
- Big West 1, Big East 0
In three head-to-head matchups, the so-called mid-major won.
"This continues to send the message to the selection committee that they're doing the right thing,'' UW-Milwaukee coach Bruce Pearl said by telephone Thursday night while reviewing tape for his second-round game against his alma mater, Boston College.
"Nothing against Maryland, Indiana and Notre Dame, but the committee showed courage by leaving them out and putting these other teams in,'' Pearl said. "When we win a game like this it shows that maybe a Miami of Ohio should have gotten in too.''
Pearl said rewarding the Panthers with a 12 seed was another bonus because it gave them even more of a chance of winning. Nevada was a No. 9 while Pacific wore the home jerseys as a No. 8.
There are more chances Friday with a mid-major matchup between No. 7 Southern Illinois against No. 10 Saint Mary's; No. 12 Old Dominion against No. 5 Michigan State; No. 11 Northern Iowa against No. 6 Wisconsin; and No. 13 Vermont against No. 4 Syracuse. The Catamounts hold their highest seed in three straight NCAA appearances.
"Rewarding us with a 12 seed is great because it shows they're looking at our 11 road wins and seeing who we beat,'' Pearl said. "The teams we beat like Saint Louis, Hawaii and Purdue didn't have great seasons but we still went out and followed the formula and did everything we were supposed to in scheduling.''
Pearl said the win over Alabama is a legacy win for Tom Davis since he learned how to coach under Davis -- now coaching at Drake -- at Boston College and Iowa.
Why does this happen in March, but it's more unlikely in January?
"Neutral courts, neutral officials and the kids on the lower seeded teams are dying for respect,'' Pearl said. "They want to prove to everybody that they belong.''
The players at UW-Milwaukee certainly do as well as the ones at Nevada and Pacific. We knew this going into the Tournament but it always takes a first-round win for the rest of the nation to see that the mid-major schools deserve their shot just as much as muddling high-major.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.