The Collegian
Sunday, July 05, 2020

Mid-major madness

As college basketball fans around the nation watched the 11 seed VCU Rams knock off Kansas in the Elite Eight last Sunday, I can only assume there was a mixed bag of emotions. For those whose brackets had gone down with the likes of Pittsburgh or Duke, I bet it was great fun to watch David take down Goliath. For others, like me, the bracket officially flat-lined with Jamie Skeen's triumphant ball heave into the crowd of black and yellow as the clock hit zero. As for those VCU fans ... well, Sunday night probably got reckless.

But as I watched the Morris twins sit on the bench and cry out the last couple seconds of their college careers (Josh Duinker's smiling somewhere), I found myself wondering what University of Richmond athletic director Jim Miller was doing.

Had he just seen what happened? Did he watch as Shaka Smart brought one of the last teams in the tournament into the Final Four? Or did he at least watch earlier, amid announcer Gus Johnson's pubescent voice cracks, as Brad Stevens willed his Butler team to its second Final Four in just as many years? Did seeing these two mid-major teams dominate SEC and Big 12 powerhouses through discipline, experience and phenomenal coaching get him thinking about his own basketball coach?

Did the thought "We could do that!" ever cross his mind when Chris Mooney's contract was extended Sunday night? In all honesty, the deal had probably been in the works for a while, but it did get me thinking.

This year, the Final Four is composed of a three seed, four seed, eight seed and 11 seed, adding up to a total of 26; the highest total ranking of seeds in March Madness history. Only two of 5.9 million ESPN.com brackets filled in this year picked all four Final Four teams correctly. (FYI for the Obama bracket fan-club: He had zero.) It is evident that the madness is multiplying.

When Mooney was asked at his press conference on Monday about Butler and VCU's tournament success, he said, "It has changed everybody's perception of how much success a school like ours can have in the NCAA tournament."

It sure has changed my perception. The playing field is evening. Mid-majors are keeping pace with the heavy weights.

I'm not saying that a Morehead State will always beat a Louisville. A Butler isn't always going to be fortunate enough to get fouled on an 85-foot "shot" with one second left in a tie game. A favorite is still a favorite.

My only point is that these underdog teams now have a legitimate chance in the NCAA tournament, your Richmond Spiders included. That is why Jim Miller gave our favorite wedding planner the money and contract length he deserves. He knows that our team can succeed on a national level, and like Butler with Brad Stevens, Gonzaga with Mark Few or VCU with Shaka Smart, he realizes that the ascendance of a mid-major starts with its coach.

It's obvious that the men just mentioned know how to coach. They know how to teach, they know how to game plan, and they know how to motivate. (See: post-game Brad Stevens chest bump.) The recurring problem for them has been that they cannot draw in the same blue chip recruits as top flight programs. My theory is simple: They don't need them.

The McDonalds All-Americans turned "one-and-dones" will continue to go to Kentucky or UNC and take their one shot at a championship. Just ask Derrick Rose, Mike Conley, Michael Beasley, Kevin Durant, Greg Oden, Kevin Love or John Wall and the gang how that's been working out. The past seven or eight years have shown me that experience and leadership constantly trump talent and flash in the field of cutting down nets.

"Players leaving early really has evened things out," Mooney said in his press conference. "The best players on the highly-ranked major teams are usually younger."

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Exactly, Chris. Meanwhile, you have four years to build chemistry and experience amongst your players. Four years to develop a last-minute scholarship offer into an Atlantic-10 Player of the Year or a raw 6-foot-10-inch forward into a possible NBA first rounder.

I believe that as long as the prestigious programs take youth over talent, the trend of pesky mid-major giant killers will continue. And as long as mid-majors have a coach like Chris Mooney, the possibilities are endless.

Am I saying the Richmond Spiders will be in the Final Four next year? No. A team losing four senior starters doesn't really go along with my theory. But later on down the road? Who knows? With Mooney at the helm, I know I'm feeling pretty "muy bien" about Richmond basketball for years to come.

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