ESPN recently put their numbers gurus on ranking all 309 teams that have played at least 15 years of college basketball. The criteria were complex, and the results probably started a lot of arguments around the water cooler.
The bottom line was that over the last 50 years, few mid-major teams have made enough noise year after year to be considered elite.
You could run down the top 100, and the list of schools cracking that number from outside the power conferences is few. Part of the reason is tradition, part is money, and part might just be the success criteria that ESPN laid out for its study -- when you consider the number of NCAA Tournament wins that a team has, having more than a single bid to fight over helps a great deal.
The top 50 featured a few names that fit in around here -- some surprising, some not. But consider that none of the teams that currently operate in the Missouri Valley did well enough to crack that level. That is a difficult showing for the mid-major league that we consider to be one of, if not the top three outside the eight conferences we consider major.
Instead you have two teams from the Ivy League making the grade, along with Weber State, Murray State, Davidson and Western Kentucky. Add in the three teams out of the West Coast Conference -- Gonzaga, BYU and San Francisco, and you have a pretty nice set of "upset specials" to pick from. (Conference USA also scored three teams, although two will be leaving for the Big East, and UTEP found favor thanks to a very special run that earned them a feature film.)
There you have the blue bloods of the mid-major world; teams that have established themselves so well over the last 50 seasons that they managed to knock some of the elite conference power out. That takes time, a strong foundation and at least a little bit of luck.
Take the two Ivy League schools: Penn and Princeton. First off, it helps when no one else in the conference is even able to break the top 200. That sets the stage for a single team to dominate year after year, or in this case two teams.
You could make the same case in the Ohio Valley conference to a lesser extent, where Austin Peay is second to the Racers but more than 100 spots behind them in the overall rankings.
If you can establish that singular team with an upper-case 'T' Tradition, you can break into this level. Winning conference title after conference title, getting some momentum recruiting bigger names and better talent: those are the secrets to mid-major success.
Two of the very best at doing that over the last 15 years, Virginia Commonwealth and Butler, have moved on to what they consider bigger pastures. Penn and Princeton don't have options like that. They get to stick around and dominate against teams that rarely if ever field a team that is worthy of even considering for the conference crown.
On the ESPN podcast that accompanied the list, Andy Katz mentioned this when talking about how hard a job that Tommy Amaker has in front of him at Harvard. Just getting into that next level, let alone the level of the tradition that Penn and Princeton have built, is a monumental task in the Ivy league. The Crimson have a long way to go.
That isn't to say that we won't see different names crack that top 50, say in 15 years when they do this again. I wouldn't count on another Ivy League team though.
San Francisco will probably depart, helped along by a singular figure in its history who was dominant enough to give the Dons two straight titles (that is Bill Russell in case you were wondering). Creighton could make a significant move up the rankings given their more recent string of success. Even Utah State, a quiet sleeper that just missed the mark at 51, has enough dominance among its peers to top the scales in its favor.
Moving up won't be easy for these teams; the chips are surely stacked against them. But there are teams beginning to mold themselves after the successful major programs.
Sometimes this is because of coaching trees, sometimes it just takes a guy with a difference in the way he thinks and imagines how his team can succeed where others have failed.
Until then, we have the best of the rest, those teams that conjure up at least recent memories of NCAA Tournament success and upsets. We can live with Davidson, Weber State and the rest as our standard bearers at Mid-Major Madness, and hope for more to join them before long.