It's something we discuss frequently come tournament time. A potential at-large mid-major has 26 wins, a regular-season conference title, a few questionable losses here and there, and a noticeable dearth of quality wins. As often as not, this team doesn't get in the tournament. Typically, scheduling takes the blame.
It's not easy for mid-majors, especially ones with serious chances at making the NCAA tournament, to convince the big boys to play them. It's almost impossible to get a big-time team to play at the mid-major's building, and it's nearly as difficult to get high-majors to schedule mid-majors at all.
Why? Because high-majors from big-time conferences don't want the risk. If your average Big Ten team keeps its head down, gets 20 solid wins, and finishes near the top half of its conference, it gives itself a pretty good chance at sliding easily into the NCAA tournament. Why take on plucky underdogs whose RPI doesn't reflect the true nature of their skill? Why risk it?
This happens every year. Lately, though, it seems to be getting worse. The Washington Post's Eric Prisbell interviewed a wide swath of mid-major coaches about their scheduling woes, and the common refrain is not surprising: No one will play us. And there's nothing we can do.
The whole story is full of great anecdotes, but this one from Utah State Aggies coach Stew Morrill paints the picture pretty well:
At Utah State, which has reached the NCAA tournament in six of the past 10 seasons, no one had much luck luring opponents to Logan, Utah, where the Aggies are 176-13 in 12 seasons under Coach Stew Morrill. So officials enlisted a prominent promoter to try to schedule a couple of nonleague games on a neutral floor against power-conference teams. He returned with a declaration: "You're right, no one wants to play you."
"It has been a nightmare," Morrill said.
Morrill said he has even tried to persuade good friend Mike Montgomery, the California coach, to play a home-and-home series against Utah State, only to elicit this response: "He just laughs at me," Morrill said. "He says: 'We're not playing you, that doesn't do us any good. I'm not that stupid.' Even your best buddies don't want to play."
This is frustrating for me, and I'm just your random college hoops dude. Imagine how frustrating it is for these coaches. Whether or not they make the NCAA tournament comes down to how good their team is, first and foremost, but it also comes down to how many opportunities that team has to prove how good it is. When other coaches control so many of those opportunities, well, how is that fair? And the difference between making the NCAA tournament and missing it can oftentimes be the difference between keeping your job or losing. Yeah, I'd be angry too.
Is there a solution here? It's hard to say. Bracketbusters is a good start; if big-time teams won't give mid-majors the time of day, then top mid-majors should work to prove themselves against one another. The problem here is that this cannibalizes the have-nots, makes them survive one another rather than giving them a shot at the haves. One frequently discussed solution involves the NCAA mandating a certain number of games against former NCAA tournament qualifiers from non-BCS conferences, but that's a logistical nightmare.
In the end, perhaps the best thing the NCAA can do is instruct its tournament selection committee to take this sort of scheduling inequality into consideration as it examines the best at-large teams in each year's pool. Sure, Mid-Major X might not have any marquee wins. But whose fault is that?