Thank goodness for the NBA and MLB. If those two leagues weren’t there to take the place of March Madness, I probably would not have been able to get out of bed Tuesday morning.
But who am I kidding? How can anything possibly replace one of the greatest NCAA Basketball Tournaments in recent memory? In fact, the entire college basketball season was more entertaining than any I’ve ever seen, thanks to the parity that existed across nearly every conference.
After Kentucky ran the table last year, losing just two games on their way to an easy championship, many feared that the sport was headed in the wrong direction. It appeared that mid-major programs would fall out of relevance, as an era of “super teams” took shape, with top recruits joining together at powerhouse schools like Duke and Kentucky. It appeared that mid-major programs would fall out of relevance. This, obviously, was not the case.
Instead of falling out of the picture, the smaller conferences stepped up to the challenge and made a remarkable impact on this season’s outcome. In fact, Gonzaga’s rise to No. 1 in the AP poll was the first time since 2004 that a school from a mid-major conference ended the season ranked first.
The success did not end there. Once in the tournament, these lesser-praised schools exceeded everyone’s expectations, save their own. The championship may have eventually boiled down to Louisville and Michigan, but no one can deny the role played by some of the smaller schools. Here are my favorites:
This pick feels like a cheat but I still have to give them credit. The Atlantic 10 may not play like a mid-major conference, but I will continue to praise it as long as it’s referred to as such. Temple took out a mediocre North Carolina State squad before giving Indiana a major scare. They may not have made the Sweet 16, but they exposed enough of the Hoosiers’ flaws to allow for Syracuse to send Indiana packing the next round.
While calling the Ivy League a mid-major is a bit generous, the point remains the same: Harvard exceeded expectations. Knocking off a New Mexico team that many (including myself) expected to go far, the Crimson’s upset left brackets busted left and right. As if those Harvard kids need something else to brag about…
3. La Salle
Another representative from the A-10, the Explorers may have had an easier ride to the Sweet 16 than others (facing a soft 4 seed and a 12), but they had to go through an extra game to get there. It seems like there is always one team from a play-in game who can continue their success in the following rounds, and La Salle was this year’s edition. Unfortunately for them, they ran up against an even hotter mid-major school and finished their season in the Sweet 16.
2. Florida Gulf Coast
The Eagles were the story of the tournament, rising from safety school to trending topic in a matter of four days. FGCU’s fast-paced offense and propensity for spectacular plays earned them the moniker “Dunk City”, and allowed them to knock off the powerhouse Georgetown Hoyas. Their torrid run was stopped by Florida in the regional semifinals, but not before they earned their place in the history books as the first 15 seed to advance to the Sweet 16.
1. Wichita State
Coming in first is Cinderella herself. Representing the Missouri Valley Conference, the Shockers strung together an unprecedented run of victories en route to the second Final Four appearance in school history. A national semifinal loss to Louisville knocked them out of the tournament, but not before they made a name for themselves and showed that mid-major schools aren’t just keeping pace with the big guys, but gaining. Fast.