AS COLLEGE football forms five super-conferences to widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots, men’s college basketball appears headed in the opposite direction.
If the early, non-conference season is any indication, the disparity between majors and mid-majors is closing fast in NCAA Division I basketball. How else to explain to explain New Jersey Technical Institute’s win over Michigan? Northeastern’s over Florida State? Nebraska-Omaha’s over Marquette? Long Beach State’s over Kansas State? Eastern Washington’s over Indiana?
“I will say this, it’s still very hard, it’s still very hard,” says Coastal Carolina coach Cliff Ellis of the challenges mid-majors face in playing road games against programs from more prestigious conferences. “I’ve not seen what has happened this year (previously). I’ve not seen it like this year.”
There might not be a better example of the rise of mid-majors than in South Carolina, where those Division I teams below South Carolina and Clemson have accounted for seven wins against the big boys of college basketball.
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Those wins included Winthrop over Clemson, USC Upstate over Georgia Tech, Coastal Carolina over Auburn, Wofford over N.C. State, S.C. State over Houston, Charleston Southern over Mississippi and USC Upstate over Mississippi State.
USC Upstate has four wins over major-conference programs in the past two seasons – the Spartans defeated USC and Virginia Tech a season ago – after winning one such game in their previous 35 attempts since joining the Division I ranks for the 2007-08 season.
It used to be that mid-majors were happy to accept a paycheck and help pad the win total of the bigger, wealthier programs. Not anymore. USC Upstate earned $360,000 for its recent four-game swing at Georgia Tech, Mississippi State, Maryland and Memphis.
Instead of rolling over, USC Upstate registered the two wins and scared the daylights out of Maryland and Memphis before losing both games by 10 points each.
Eddie Payne is a veteran coach of 30 seasons at both the major and mid-major level, including the past 13 at USC Upstate. He sees three areas that have helped the lower-level programs become more competitive against the top-level clubs.
First, 20 years ago the NCAA reduced the number of scholarships allotted for men’s basketball from 15 to 13. That might not seemed like a drastic measure initially, but probably is one that has taken time to have an affect.
“Over time, I think you’ve seen players slip through cracks a little bit,” Payne says. “When the big schools don’t have as many scholarships, the talent gets dispersed a little bit more.”
Second, major programs such as Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina must deal with early defections to the NBA, while mid-major programs consistently field teams with fourth- and fifth-year seniors.
Kentucky counts at least two early departures to the NBA every season. In last year’s NCAA tournament, Mercer started five seniors in its upset win over Duke, whose star player, Jabari Parker, was playing in the final game of his only collegiate season.
Payne says USC Upstate’s wins over major programs a season ago were the result of having four senior starters, and those wins this season were aided by having three seniors in his backcourt.
Finally, there is more and better talent across the country, according to both Payne and Ellis.
“It seems like there’s a little bit larger pool to draw from than in the past,” Payne says.
Ellis, who is in his 40th year of college coaching including the past eight at Coastal Carolina, has a much broader theory on that front. He says more youngsters are shying away from the physical contact of football and are instead choosing to play basketball. The result, he says, will be an even greater pool of talent available in future years for the 351 Division I programs.
At the same time, if Ellis’ theory holds true, fewer athletes will be available to football programs, and most of that talent will migrate almost exclusively to the 64 power-five conference teams.
One sport is widening the gap between the haves and have nots. The other is closing it.