When George Mason made the Final Four in 2006 they were referred to as the first mid-major team to make it that far since 1979 when Penn and Indiana State each made it to college basketball's shining moment. Yet my colleague Adam Rank regularly includes UNLV in his coverage of West Coast mid-major basketball. I don't think I need to point out the glorious moments in that program's past.
On the same token, ESPN and the fine mid-major web site The Mid-Majority each refer to the Atlantic 10 as a mid-major conference which would mean that Massachusetts' trip to the Final Four in 1996 would have been George Mason's predecessor, if not UNLV's National Title and three Final Four appearances.
I'm thinking about this point this morning because the Minutemen went into the Carrier Dome and beat Syracuse 107-100 last night. An impressive road win to be sure, but it doesn't raise my eyebrows in quite the same way that Gardner-Webb beating Kentucky did earlier this year. Why? Because the history of teams like UMass, Temple, St. Joseph's and Xavier isn't anything to scoff at and those teams don't appear to be on an uneven playing field with the likes of Michigan, Rutgers, Rice or Oregon State, to name four big conference schools, right now.
It's hard to put the A-10 at that much of a disadvantage in comparison to the Big 10 after the way the ACC eviscerated them for the ninth straight year in their annual "Challenge." In these matchups, the ACC is the U.S. Armed Forces and the Big 10 is Grenada. Not much of a challenge, then. Would the A-10 do any better? Probably not, the ACC is college basketball's standard bearer, but they might not do any worse.
Maybe its time to stop making discussions of mid-majors about conferences and sticking it to teams. Gonzaga, Xavier and Southern Illinois aren't mid-majors even if they play in conferences that have teams that are in that group. But just because Michigan and Penn State play in the Big 10 doesn't make them a major. Would anyone be surprised if either of those teams lost to Saint Mary's or Butler? Or even New Orleans? Memphis isn't a mid-major but most of the teams in Conference USA are. If they would struggle in the MVC or CAA, why do they escape the imprimatur slapped on teams in the Top 25?
Sports are fluid. One year Notre Dame means something in college football, the next they are fodder for the service academies yet this mid-major handle has become attached to college basketball teams with little regard for how good individual teams are in a given year. The AP headline about last night's UMass win says they "stunned" Syracuse. Is that really true? They weren't favored but is it that stunning that they would a game against a Big East school. I don't think so and neither would anyone else 8 or 10 years ago. 8 or 10 years from now it may shock us that someone could walk into Carbondale and beat the Salukis, would they still be a mid-major then?