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Mid-majors still fighting to keep pace

The Pit is one of the reasons New Mexico is able to make noise on a national level. Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY Sports

Whatever a mid-major is in college basketball these days, New Mexico need not apply.

The Lobos are estimated to have spent a hearty $37 million on athletics in 2012. Their typically packed and economically named gym, The Pit, ranks among the best home venues in the country. Their league, the Mountain West, has become a pound-for-pound roundball power. New Mexico has gone 45-17 in the conference over the past four seasons and earned three NCAA tournament bids (and two No. 3 seeds) in that time.

Yet in the ongoing and not-totally-imaginary tug of war between college basketball's flush elite and unwashed "mid-major" masses, the program first-year head coach Craig Neal inherited this summer still has more in common with the latter than the former.

Neal would know. Since he arrived with Steve Alford in 2007, few assistant coaches have so deftly molded all possible recruiting inefficiencies to their employer's advantage. In six years, Neal has taken players out of the Pac-12's backyard, opened pipelines to international talent, welcomed crucial Division I and junior college transfers. He developed strategic recruiting connections in Texas, Arizona, Colorado, and, most crucially, talent-drenched Southern California. He bet on lightly touted or entirely ignored prospects -- Southern California native Kendall Williams, a mid-level prospect turned star shooting guard; Cameron Bairstow, the No. 196-ranked power forward in the class of 2010 -- and watched them develop into a cohesive, solid core. He welcomed Drew Gordon, a blue-chip UCLA prospect, who only blossomed into a force after arriving in the desert. And he built a reputation, and New Mexico's reputation, as a yearly contender, a place to be.

Throughout the process, New Mexico's batch of unsung tweener forwards and loping Australians has never looked as talented as most of their elite brethren. But they've won. A lot.

"There are a lot of good players out there, man," Neal said. "A lot of good players. And the so-called blue-blood schools can't take all of them."

Such is life on the fault lines governing college basketball. Three years after Butler came inches from knocking off Duke for a storybook national title, two years after VCU joined Butler in the Final Four, and just a few months after Wichita State took the eventual national champion to the wire in the Georgia Dome, has the rise of the mid-major we all stalled out? The "rise of the mid-major" -- so it was dubbed; "rise of the non-power conference team" is less catchy but more accurate -- is still running up against massive systemic obstacles.

A glance at any given 2013-14 preseason top 10 tells at least part of the story. The order doesn't really matter: Kentucky, Kansas, Louisville, Duke, Michigan State, Florida, Ohio State, Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina, Syracuse, Memphis and on down the line -- these are nationally relevant, marquee programs of the past 20 years that have at least in part earned their preseason rankings through astronomical recruiting. In the one-and-done age -- the age that was supposed to give experienced, veteran groups at less NBA-inclined schools the secret sauce -- every school you see above has happily made that trade. That top 10 feels like classic college basketball. It feels like order. What happened to disorder?

For one, the elite's advantages haven't gone anywhere. Quality programs from non-power conferences can't get big schools to schedule them for a home-and-home. Coaches who could make hard-charging recruiting headway are dominated by opposing coaches' literal air superiority. State-of-the-art practice facilities are typically out of the non-power price range. Talented kids love gleaming facilities, and talented kids go to the NBA, and other talented kids want to follow those kids to the NBA. The hole gets deep in a hurry.

What makes matters worse is that elite schools are only getting smarter. Smarter about video prep. Smarter about numbers. Smarter about scouting. Smarter about the blend of secondary personnel that best complements future NBA stars. Only Kentucky, where John Calipari has built a self-sustaining cycle of NBA progression, takes a remotely radical view toward one-and-dones. Everyone else is searching for the know-it-when-you-see-it chemistry that made Butler so special, co-opting the little guys' advantages, and getting better at it all the time. (Remember when the Boston Red Sox tried to hire Billy Beane? Right. Kind of like that.)

One-and-dones command the popular imagination, but their impact arguably pales in comparison to the other great trend of college basketball's last decade: transfers. More players transfer now than ever before. Even a single year's tally can boggle the mind. The NCAA believes this to be a dire state of affairs. Your mileage may vary. (The percentage of college basketball players who transfer each season is not much higher than the percentage of coaches who take new jobs, which is probably worth noting.) But for sheer basketball purposes, transfers disproportionately affect the non-elite.

In 2012, Sports Illustrated's Luke Winn devised the handy term "up-transfers" to describe players who transfer up the college basketball ladder -- from a low-major to a mid-major, from a mid to a major conference, from a major conference to a national power, and so on.

In 2007-08, just six players qualified as up-transfers. In 2012-13, 30 up-transfers became eligible to play for their new schools.

This coming season offers much the same. Combine that burgeoning trend with the transfer-tampering iceberg -- when coaches from other schools actively recruit a player on scholarship elsewhere, with the surface discussion a mere fraction of the whole -- and the overall ask for programs without legacies or loose-pocketed boosters becomes daunting. It means asking programs with drastically fewer resources to recruit more intelligently than their competitors. It means investing in advanced player development. And it means sticking through that intensive, long-term work knowing all the while that as soon as those players you've groomed are good enough to attract the attention of the big boys, they'll hear about it. It means losing seniors to the graduate transfer exception. The climb is constant.

Perhaps that's why merely looking at the 2013-14 preseason top 10 is such a silly exercise in the first place. After all, just beyond the top 10 you'll find VCU, Wichita State, Creighton, Gonzaga, St. Louis and Harvard. Look further, past the top 25, and you'll see Belmont and Boise State and North Dakota State and St. Mary's and La Salle. Not all of these schools should be called mid-majors; in our post-realignment, basketball-only-Big East world, the lines between "high-major" and "mid-major" have almost entirely blurred. But whatever you want to call them, these are programs that have grown in less hospitable environments than many of the schools they'll topple come March. Instead of wondering why non-power conference schools aren't upending the entire sport, perhaps we should celebrate the programs that have managed to accomplish this much this quickly.

"I just think we're competitive," Neal said. "I think if you ask other coaches about our program, it's not that we're doing something differently. Everyone's just better. You can say that about all of the teams -- VCU, Butler, what they have going at Wichita State -- that have excelled. The coaching is better. The recruiting is better. The whole product is better.

"At the end of the day, at all levels, you're still finding kids that fit what you do, that know what your program is about, that want to make not a four-year commitment but a lifelong commitment. You get ahead of the curve and pinpoint guys and let them know what your program is all about. You judge talent. You find guys who can play."

Neal, like his colleagues, is constantly doing exactly that -- always planning the next wave of could-be Lobos stars. In 2014, he'll welcome Xavier Adams, a three-star small forward prospect from Texas that "not a lot of people knew about." If Adams exceeds most recruiting analysts' expectations, he'll play a key role in keeping New Mexico at the top of the Mountain West, and on equal footing with resurgent West Coast powers Arizona and UCLA in the years to come.

That's the same UCLA, by the way, that this spring agreed to pay $18.2 million -- with a $10.4 million buyout -- to new head coach Steve Alford.

The big boys always win. Or do they?