Mid-Major is a term mainly used in American NCAA Division I college basketball and college football, to describe schools not affiliated with a conference whose football teams possess automatic bids to the Bowl Championship Series (BCS). Though not always the case in the past, the term today has basically the same meaning in basketball that it has in football. It should be noted that the term "mid-major" was originally coined by the sports media and has no official status. The NCAA recognizes no distinction between so-called "major" and "mid-major" conferences in either basketball or football. Still, "mid-major schools" face different dilemmas in each sport.
There has been much debate, especially in the last decade, as to the true definition of "mid-major" as it relates to college basketball. Some still believe that the term has an arbitrary litmus test of sorts, such as how many teams a conference qualifies for either the NCAA Division I Men's Tournament or NCAA Division I Women's Tournament in a "good" year, or how much success said conference has in the NCAA tournament, or even conference revenue, attendance, and so on.
In recent years conferences such as the Missouri Valley (MVC) and Horizon League have either a) received two, three, or four NCAA tournament bids every single year since the 1990's (MVC), or b) had a higher NCAA tournament winning % than all but one non-BCS conference over the last four years (Horizon League). The Horizon League is also one of only two non-BCS conferences that has had a Sweet 16 team in three of the last five NCAA tournaments (with C-USA being the other). Possibly even more telling, for 2005-06 the MVC had an average attendance of nearly 2,000 more people per game than the Atlantic Ten, and outdrew Conference USA by over 2,000 per game. (NCAA D-I attendance figures, 2005-2006)
It is quite possible that the parity shown in the 2006 NCAA tournament is a reflection that, outside of being BCS members, higher-rated conferences can no longer be differentiated from each other with any clarity when it comes to the "mid-major" and "major" labels.
The term "mid-major" is sometimes used to describe all of the other 31 conferences not normally considered to be a major conference. Usually the term is specifically applied to only the non-major conferences that consistently produce quality teams. Often the definition of a basketball mid-major will be of a conference that can put at least one at-large bid in the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament as well as have a team or teams advance fairly regularly, while not garnering the attention and television dollars of a major conference. The conferences most likely to be considered a mid-major include:
- Atlantic Ten Conference (A-10)
- Colonial Athletic Association (CAA)
- Conference USA (C-USA)
- Horizon League
- Mid-American Conference (MAC)
- Missouri Valley Conference (MVC)
- Mountain West Conference (MWC)
- West Coast Conference (WCC)
- Western Athletic Conference (WAC)
Note that a very strong team in a mid-major conference may be effectively a major program; the most notable examples of this being Gonzaga of the WCC and Memphis of the "new" (post-realignment) C-USA. Additionally, some programs from lower-rated conferences which are not usually considered "mid-major" may produce teams on level with the better mid-major teams. Some examples from recent years include: Winthrop, Bucknell, Vermont, and Pacific.
Challenges for Mid-Major Programs
Mid-major teams often have a difficult time scheduling major conference opponents, especially at home. Major conference teams usually will not schedule a high quality mid-major team, knowing that there is an uncomfortably high chance that they will lose (especially if the game is at the mid-major team's home court) and if the major team does win, there is often little benefit in media exposure for beating non-major school. Some major conference teams also believe that scheduling games with additional competitive teams isn't necessary for their current team's development, as they believe there will be enough "tough games" during conference play. This phenomenon often manifests itself in major squads playing mostly lower ranked mid-major conference teams (while refusing schedule requests from better mid-major squads) in their out-of-conference schedules, thereby establishing very impressive records against lesser foes and bypassing higher quality mid-major teams in the process (the University of Maryland has often been used as an example of this phenomenon)In recent years, the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee has stressed the importance of a team's strength of schedule (SOS) in the nonconference portion of their schedule. Teams with a low-ranked non*conference SOS have often been penalized in their seeding and in some cases not selected for the tournament at all. In 2006, Florida State was left out of the tournament field in large part because its out-of-conference schedule was rated #316 out of 333 Division I teams.
The difficulty most mid-majors have in scheduling BCS conference opponents has a large effect on their ability to qualify for the NCAA basketball championship tournament and for the National Invitation Tournament. Often, mid-major teams with outstanding records are passed over for at-large berths in the NCAA Tournament in favor of teams from BCS conferences with mediocre records, based partly on the fact that the mid-major teams often have a lower strength of schedule. Without the ability to play more "major" opponents, most mid-majors have to stake their Tournament hopes on winning their conference's season-ending tournament (which promises an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament) since the possibility of an at-large bid is often remote.
Gonzaga's men's team faces a slightly different set of challenges. Since its Elite Eight appearance in 1999, it has successfully established itself as the closest thing to a major program in a mid-major conference, making the tournament field in every year since, even in years it failed to win the West Coast Conference tournament. Its position in a mid-major conference is no longer a primary issue with regard to making the tournament field, but is often perceived to adversely affect its tournament seeding. The Bulldogs typically play a nationally competitive non-conference schedule, frequently going on the road, and have proven themselves capable of defeating nationally prominent opponents. However, the relative weakness of the West Coast Conference (WCC) hurts Gonzaga's strength of schedule, which in turn lowers the Bulldogs' Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) (an important numerical criterion in tournament selection). Other mid-majors, such as Memphis, are also likely to face these challenges.
The NCAA tournament selection for the 2006 men's tournament was surrounded by controversy related to mid-major programs. A number of teams from mid-major conferences had unprecedented success in the non-conference portions of their schedule, and were therefore ranked highly in the RPI throughout the season. A change in the NCAA RPI rating process, prior to the 2005 season, also bolstered many of these teams' chances. The NCAA changed from a formula that treated home and road wins and losses equally, to a formula that gave higher weight to road wins and home losses. Because many BCS conference teams played no more than one or two non-conference games away from home, there was a de-facto bolstering of RPI ratings for mid-major teams, leading to speculation about how this "new" version of the RPI would be used in the selection process by the NCAA tournament selection committee. In spite of a new precedent being set by the committee, which left the highest ranking RPI team ever, #21 Missouri State of the Missouri Valley Conference out of the tournament field, some mid-majors with high RPI's received at-large bids over lower-ranked BCS conference teams. This prompted harsh criticism from sports writers and coaches of BCS conference teams that did not receive bids. This criticism flew in the face of the fact that the six BCS conferences still received more bids (32) from the committee as in most years past. The mid-major conference teams that were selected went on to quiet those critics when a record number (five) advanced to the "Sweet 16". Even more significantly, one of those teams, George Mason of the Colonial Athletic Association, became the first mid-major to reach the Men's Final Four in more than a quarter-century.