Without a doubt, the level of play and competition in mid-major conferences across the country is at an all-time high. Every March, we now see traditional powerhouse schools fall to a lower seed in the NCAA tournament, but for some reason, those upset defeats already seem to have been lost in the annals of college basketball history.
There is a certain swagger and folklore surrounding the Steve Nash-led No. 15 seed Santa Clara’s upset over the No. 2 seed Arizona Wildcats back in 1993, yet most of us have already forgotten some of the other more recent upsets. Who remembers that it was just three months ago that Middle Tennessee shocked Michigan State or perhaps Lehigh’s upset of Duke back in 2012?
Today’s mid-major teams that have become successful just don’t have the same kind of charisma or chutzpah as their counterparts of the 1990s, and thus, have become less memorable and, more importantly, impactful on the game.
The style and charisma of the mid-major basketball programs of the 1990’s has become timeless. If you want to know where "The Fab 5" got its license for swagger, look west to the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels. Without the alley oops of Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon laying the ground work in 1989-90, perhaps the baggy shorts of Michigan’s Fab 5 would have been too much for the mainstream media to handle in the years to come.
Without Marcus Camby’s flare and intensity at UMass in 95-96 for a then-unknown John Calipari, perhaps the Big Blue Nation of today is just another average SEC program wishing Tubby Smith would come back and take the helm. Without Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble of Loyal Marymount, perhaps the Golden State Warriors of today are a more defensive minded team who win games with scores of 89-85 by playing tough defense instead of running the floor like gazelles and putting up an endless amount of shots from all over the court.
That’s the mid-major influence.
The 1990 Loyola Marymount Lions still hold the NCAA record for the highest scoring team in history, averaging 122 points per game. In comparison, Golden State averaged just 114 points per game this past season, yet the media of today still try to present the Warriors as a team that has revolutionized basketball.
The 1990 UNLV team is still the only team to score 100 points in an NCAA championship game and still hold the record for the largest margin of victory in a championship game when the Rebels hammered Duke, 103-73. Four of the top five scoring teams in the NCAA this past season would all be considered mid-majors (Oakland, The Citadel, Omaha, North Florida), yet the top scoring team still only managed 86.4 points per game. That's 53 points less per game than Loyola's best output back in 90.
Do you still think today's game is more offensive than the past?
Some may say that it’s the coach’s influence of making their players play within the confines of their system, which has led to the lack of style and swagger in today’s mid-majors. Others may argue the influence of media or cultural differences that surrounded the players of the 90s as compared to today’s players. In the 90s, the music of Dr. Dre, Pearl Jam, Tupac and Biggie filled pregame locker rooms. Today’s pre-game music probably features a Canadian guy who sings or raps about his girlfriend not returning his text in an appropriate time or fashion.
The mid-majors of today’s era who have achieved notoriety are a little more wholesome in the chutzpah or charisma column. The Monmouth Hawks are fun to watch, but the whole routine was a little hokey in comparison to the Runnin’ Rebels of the early 1990’s. Butler’s back-to-back appearances in the national championship game were impressive, but I doubt anybody outside of Indianapolis (and Utah, yeah I know) can name a player from that team, and even Ward Cleaver would likely describe the Bulldogs' swagger as "neato." I don’t see players from these current mid-major teams (or any college program for that matter) working the late-night talk show circuit like the Loyal Marymount players of the 90’s did.
It was the mid-major teams of the 1990s that helped me develop my love for college basketball. Their style and flare was intoxicating and it kept me tuning in week after week. The mid-majors of today can be fun to watch at times, but it's hard to imagine them changing the game in a way we will still see 20 years down the road.