2011 NCAA Tournament: Year of the small school run?


There is a particular resident LND writer, not naming names, but let’s call him Schmerron Schmingleton, who is proudly proclaiming victory over his preseason college hoops prediction that 2011 would be the year of the small conference schools running deep in the tournament. This claim of victory might have gone unnoticed, except another LND writer, not naming names, but let’s call him Sexy Square Nuts, called out Schmerron’s manhood before the start of the Tournament saying 2011 would be dominated by the big league schools.

Following the first weekend, Perron…oops, I mean, Schmerron…declared: “way back in the preseason i wasn’t calling for chaos in the tournament – but rather small conference schools making long runs. richmond, vcu, butler, byu, sdsu have proven me right already. it’s another year of the small school. at least one of those teams will win another game or two.”

Mr. Schmingleton’s apparent inability to use caps aside, this caused Square Nuts to raise an eyebrow. (By the way, can you imagine a pair of nuts with eyebrows? It’s like dirty Mr. Potato Head.)

So why is this debate happening? A) It’s timely. B) What else are we going to talk about? Regular season NBA or NHL? Pass. C) Perron thinks he’s right, and Jay just can’t stand when that happens. D) It turns out, it’s a pretty interesting analysis and it hinges on a couple of key assumptions.

The head to head returns to LND right now! Let’s get to it.

Jay says: This ain’t no year of no small conference school.

This debate calls for getting a few things unLiberace—that is to say, straight—first.

1) Perron and I agree – a “long run” = making it to the Sweet 16 for a small school.

Perron leans on Richmond of the Atlantic 10 and BYU and San Diego St. of the Mountain West to make his small school argument. Let’s just throw those teams out the window, because the assumption that the A-10 and MWC are small conferences is patently absurd.

Both the A-10 and MWC have received 9 bids over the last three tournaments (the PAC 10 has only garnered 10). Going back a decade, both have 25 bids over the last decade – a solid 2.5 teams per season. The only other league that has averaged more than 1.3 bids per season in the last decade outside of the “BCS Conferences” (ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Big East, PAC 10, SEC) is C-USA with 26 bids, but 17 of those came in the 2002-2005 timeframe before the Big East raided the cream of the conference, taking Marquette, Cincinnati and Louisville (and a few other teams no one gives a shit about).

The A-10 and MWC both also sport multiple teams with a lot of hoops history—Xavier, Temple, Utah, UNLV anybody?

So I’ll admit the A-10 and MWC aren’t “big conference schools,” but they’re clearly in another league above Perron’s “small conference schools.” Let’s call them “middle conference schools,” and there’s a distinction there from “mid-majors.” Mid-majors are the better teams from the small conferences. Gonzaga was the quintessential mid-major in the late ‘90s. (Although the ‘Zags are like Boise St. in football at this point – they’re established as a major).

So, eliminating the Big 6 conference and the 3 middle conferences (A-10, MWC and C-USA-which was really a big conference from 2002-2005 and then a small conference plus Memphis from 2006 on, but we’ll split the difference for this debate) and you’re left with VCU and Butler as small schools left in 2011.

Does two small conference schools in the Sweet 16 qualify as “another year of the small school?”

As mentioned, I refuse to count Gonzaga as a small school, and that actually benefits Perron’s argument (because ‘Zaga didn’t make the Sweet 16 this year, but would have pushed the small school average up over the last decade). That said, 4 small schools not named Gonzaga made the Sweet 16 in 2010, 3 made it in 2006, 2 did it in 2008, 2007 and 2002, and  1 did it in 2005, 2004 and 2003.

So, in the last 10 years, more small schools have made the Sweet 16 in 2 years and the same amount have made it in 3 years. Two small schools is the median and barely above the mean (again, these numbers would be even better for me if I counted Gonzaga, but I’m not). Basically, count on two Cinderallas per year.

Curious about those middle conference schools?  They’re the real aberration this year. Three middle conference schools made the Sweet 16 this year compared to a 10-year average of only 1.5 (which is actually the average both pre- and post-C-USA shakeup). So, there you have it, P, it was the year of the conferences that are always really good at the top and just aren’t as deep as big conferences not named the PAC 10.

But back to this “small school” thing. I feel like I made a safe assumption that everyone can agree with when I said you just can’t consider Gonzaga as a small school anymore. That time ended in 2001 after the Zags made their third straight Sweet 16.

So if we can make that leap with Gonzaga, what about Butler? The Bulldogs made their fourth Sweet 16 in the last 10 years this year. They were about two inches away from winning a national title last year against Duke – officially, The Man (in the bad context, not the good) of college hoops. Want to know how many teams have made the Sweet 16 more than Butler in the last 10 years? Eight—Duke (8), UConn (6), Kansas (6), Michigan St. (5), North Carolina (5), Texas (5), Arizona (5) and Kentucky (5).

College basketball success is measured in March. Can you really count one of the 10 best postseason programs of the past decade as a “small school?”

If you do, fine – then 2011 was the same as any other year for small schools. If you think the 2010 national runners up have ascended beyond small school status, then 2011 offered you all of one true Cinderella run.

Good luck VCU!

Your ball, P-diddles.

Perron says: This am so another year of the small conference school.

Since Jay used up the entire allowable word count for his argument,  I will make this a short retort.

The main problem with Jay’s argument is that there is too much focus on the other teams in the conference of the schools in question and not enough analysis of the schools themselves.  Xavier, Temple, Utah, and UNLV do indeed have strong basketball programs, but you have to make a Grand Canyon-sized leap to apply that to the other teams in their conferences. That is like saying Duke is a big football school because they are in a conference with Virginia Tech and Florida State. So lets look at these small schools individually:

San Diego State – this team has never won a single game in the tournament before this season.  Enough said.

Richmond – they have only been to nine tournaments ever and only one other sweet sixteen way back in 1988.

BYU – they have not been to the sweet sixteen in 30 years with 1981 being the last time.

Butler is more interesting because they have become somewhat of a staple in the sweet sixteen.  But we are talking about a team that plays in the Horizon League – a conference that perennially only gets one bid. They play in the gym that was used in the movie Hoosiers.  Despite their recent run of success, they are the defining example of a  small school.  In fact my original argument was that a small school will make “another Butler-like run to the Final Four.”

Add VCU and you have 5 small schools in the sweet sixteen this year and a victory for me.

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