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The little guys in the room: How it feels to be left out of the NCAA Tournament as a mid-major player

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The feeling of losing in the conference tournament is tough for all teams, but for mid-majors, it can derail a season.

NCAA Basketball: Ohio Valley Conference Tournament-Belmont vs Austin Peay Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

We are all here for a reason. You didn’t just stumble across this amazing and superb website called Mid-Major Madness (Fact check: CORRECT! it is both amazing and superb).

We’re here because we all love mid-major basketball.

The main reason why I love the mid-majors is because of the countless games where an underdog comes out of nowhere and upsets a powerhouse basketball program. What can I say? I love the little guy. I mean, who doesn’t remember the kid from Mercer who hit the “Nae Nae” at mid-court after beating Duke in the 2014 NCAA Tournament?

It is with this shared love and passion that I hope to dig a little deeper into what it is really like to be one of the little guys.

Apart from the money and exposure, one of the biggest things that separates the power conference teams from the mids is the importance of the conference tournament.

With the current NCAA selection process, high-majors get a disproportionately large number of at-large bids.

Let me make this a point as clear as I can. I’m not here to bash the Selection Committee, because their job is near impossible and I think they are pretty good at it. It’s just reality. If you don’t win your conference tournament, you will most likely not get into the NCAA Tournament.

In the 2017 NCAA Tournament, 25 automatic bids were given to mid-major teams and only three other mid-majors received an at-large bid.

I know all too well how it feels to come up short. Three times in my college career, we won the regular season title and got knocked out of the conference tournament. It is the worst feeling that you can have — to play so well during the year and lose one game that completely derails your season.

Was I mad at the system? Of course I was. I wanted to play in the Big Dance and thought we were better than some of the teams who got in. Remember the Murray State team we beat in the OVC Championship Game in 2015? That was the one led by Cameron Payne and that won like 29 games in a row before we knocked them off. I honestly believe they were the best team we ever played, and they deserved to get in.

When this happens, one of the only things that puts a little positivity in your head is the chance to play in the NIT if you won your regular season title. This opportunity can be an amazing experience, in which your team has a chance to play and win games against some quality opponents. It also has its drawbacks. For starters, it is not the NCAA Tournament, and that is extremely disappointing. Everyone coming to practice is down on their luck and practices can either go really poorly or really well.

I would like to say that I have been on teams that only have great practices, but that would be a lie. Many times, we were so disappointed that practicing for the NIT was just not something that we wanted to do. No matter how you feel, you have to find a way to get yourself mentally and physically prepared to play the game at hand.

If you are prepared, then the automatic NIT bid could be a good consolation. Is it the only solution? No. It still doesn’t address the disparity in how at-large bids are handed out.

While the NIT bid is a good start, the next step in this whole process has to do with scheduling. Generally speaking, high-major programs will have tougher schedules because they compete against better teams in-conference. Mid-majors, ideally, should be able to partially make up for this in the non-conference season.

Illinois State, one of the best mid-major programs in 2016-17 to not get into the NCAA Tournament, experienced the problem with this first-hand. After being denied a bid, their head coach sent a tweet to high majors asking to schedule them for next year. Thankfully for the Redbirds, Ole Miss answered the call. But even having to resort to a tweet highlights the problem.

For high-major coaches, the perceived risk of scheduling (and maybe losing) to Illinois State outweighs the potential reward of beating them. Think about what would happen if Illinois State were to schedule a high-major, go on the road, and win. Think any other teams would step up and try and schedule the Redbirds?

The scheduling issue for mid-majors is where this all starts and is the biggest problem that they face in getting into the Big Dance as an at-large team. Until high-major programs are willing to continually play the best mid-majors, I don’t see this problem fixing itself anytime soon.

Another potential solution would be to do away with conference tournaments all together and reward the automatic bid to the winner of the regular season. This way, conferences ensure that the best team from the league actually gets the bid, which would increase their chances at an upset, resulting in more exposure and tournament revenue.

We all know the problem there: Conference tournaments are a big money-maker. An occasional upset in the NCAA Tournament isn’t a big enough motivator to eliminate them.

I’ve been on both sides as a mid-major player: both making the tournament as a non-regular season champion, and winning the regular season championship only to be denied a bid. Change seems to come slowly, and until it does, it’s something you have to come to terms with when you are the little guy in the room.