Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Wannabes

In high school, I was "part" of a crowd of smart kids, many of whom were also athletes. We were sort of the second level cool kids and often would make fun of what we considered were the dorks (though I really was a dork). You had the kid who was good at soccer and jokes, the kid who was the best track athlete in the school, the high school basketball player and shortstop, another baseball player, the lacrosse player and others. Then there was me. I was usually the butt of the jokes but they kept me around for some reason, possibly because I was good at intramural basketball and softball (and we had a slow pitch softball team that would play the jocks and win).

Even though I hung out with them,. I always felt like an outsider with that group and never felt really accepted. I lost touch with all of them after high school and it was probably the best thing for me. And I never really had an interest going back for any of my high school reunions to see how they were doing. I didn't want to be "a wannabe" anymore.

So what does this have to do with college basketball? Well, there are three conferences who aren't mid majors or don't consider themselves mid majors (they think mid majors are dorks). But they aren't the power conferences either, certainly not from a financial or reputational standpoint. I am referring to the Mountain West, Conference USA and Atlantic 10. They are "The Wannnabes".

I started talking about this on my January 8th article as a reply to one of my reader's comments about the Missouri Valley. The reader asked if the Missouri Valley could no longer be considered a mid major. And after giving some data that I thought proved to the contrary, I commented the following;
The Valley is still a mid major and will be until it becomes a consistent three bid conference. But it still wouldn't be a power conference. It would be like the A10, Conference USA and the Mountain West - "Wannabe Power Conferences". Mid Major doesn't sound so bad now, doesn't it?
The A10 (a misnomer for a conference with 14 teams), Conference USA and Mountain West have similar basketball budgets - A10 $2.5 million, CUSA $2.7 million and MWC $2.8 million. Compare that with the "lowest" power conference which is the PAC-10 at $4.3 million. That's quite a jump in budget.

Second, the A10, MWC and Conference USA have had similar histories as far as number of teams in the tournament the past ten years.

Atlantic 10 NCAA Tournament Teams

2000 - St Bonaventure, Dayton, Temple
2001 - St Joseph's, Temple, Xavier
2002 - Xavier
2003 - Dayton, Xavier, St Joseph's
2004 - St Joseph's, Richmond, Dayton, Xavier
2005 - George Washington
2006 - George Washington, Xavier
2007 - George Washington, Xavier
2008 - Xavier, Temple, St Joseph's
2009 - Xavier, Temple, Dayton

Mountain West NCAA Tournament Teams

2000 - Utah , UNLV
2001 - BYU
2002 - Wyoming, Utah, San Diego State
2003 - Colorado St, BYU, Utah
2004 - BYU, Utah, Air Force
2005 - Utah, New Mexico
2006 - Air Force, San Diego State
2007 - BYU, UNLV
2008 - BYU, UNLV
2009 - BYU, Utah

Conference USA NCAA Tournament Teams

2000 - St Louis, Louisville, DePaul, Cincinnati
2001 - Cincinnati, Charlotte
2002 - Marquette, Charlotte, Cincinnati
2003 - Marquette*, Memphis, Cincinatti, Louisville
2004 - Charlotte, Louisville, DePaul, UAB, Memphis, Cincinnati
2005 - Cincinnati, UAB, Louisville*, Charlotte
2006 - Memphis, UAB
2007 - Memphis
2008 - Memphis
2009 - Memphis

* - Final Four Teams

So here's the breakdown for the three conferences the past ten years.

A10 - Six years the A10 has had at least three teams, two years with two and surprisingly two years with one team (2002 and 2005).

MWC - Only three years has the Mountain West had three teams, six years they had only two teams and one year, they only had one (2001).

Conference USA - One year (2004) they had six teams, three years they had four teams, one year with three, two years with two and the last three years, one team (Memphis).

If you want to break it down even further as I did based on seeds the past ten years , here is the lowdown.

The A10 has had a #1 seed (St Joseph's in 2004), a #2 seed (Temple in 2000), a #3 seed twice (Xavier both in 2003 and 2008) and a #4 seed twice (Dayton in 2003 and Xavier in 2009).

The highest seed the Mountain West has had in the past ten years was Utah's 5th seed in the West bracket in 2009. Before that it was a #6 seed for Utah in 2005.

Conference USA has had three #1 seeds (Cinci in 2002, Memphis in 2006 and 2008), two #2 seeds (Memphis in 2007 and 2009) a #3 seed (Marquette in 2003) and two #4 seeds (Louisville in 2003 and Cinci in 2004).

Of the three Wannabe conferences, only Conference USA has had a Final Four team in the past ten years. Twice - Louisville in 2003 and Memphis, who lost to Kansas in the championship in 2008.

Of course the explanation for the drop off of Conference USA is easy. Louisville, DePaul, Marquette and Cincinnati all left to join "The cool kids", the Big East after 2005. And Charlotte and St Louis left for the Atlantic 10 after 2005.

And that's another reason for the A10 not being a mid major. You don't leave one conference to move to another as a step down (unless you're Temple and realize you stink in football and thus move from the Big East to the MAC - notice they made a bowl game this year!). In the case of Charlotte, you had a team that made the NCAA Tournament four times between 2001 and 2005. You are not going to step down to another conference. They saw the handwriting on the wall when the other four schools left for the Big East, and decided the A10 was the next best thing. Ironically, Charlotte has not made a NCAA tournament since their move to the A10 (and neither has St Louis).

I think the kicker is how the Mountain West has fared the last ten years. The number of teams on average that have made the tournament the past ten years in the MWC is very close to the Missouri Valley. The Valley has been more than a two bid conference twice in the past ten years, in 2005 and 2006 and six years it's been two teams and unfortunately, the last two years, only one bid. Valley teams on average spend $700,000 less per year than Mountain West teams with similar results.

And as noted, the Mountain West has had only one team seeded as high as fifth, and only two teams have made it as far as the Sweet 16 (Utah in 2005, UNLV 2007). Yet they spend more money for their basketball budget on average than the A10 or Conference USA.

Of course, these conferences have on average been much more successful than the mid major conferences, with the possible exception of the Missouri Valley compared to the Mountain West. But is it really a step up to go from a mid major to a wannabe? Just ask Charlotte and St Louis. They went from one wannabe conference to another. How's that worked out for them? The moral of the story. Be happy who you are and don't be something you're not.

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