As teams put the final touches on their March Madness preparations, a cursory glance around the college basketball landscape entering the sport’s biggest month reveals that many serious Final Four contenders fall within the mid-major ranks.
While each mid-major program yearns for the level of consistent prominence afforded to programs like Dayton and San Diego State, only a select few have the resources to actualize those goals — and even fewer ever truly reach them.
For the teams below, the components are already in place for them to take the next step forward.
James Madison Dukes
The schools within this piece aren’t ranked on their likelihood for success, but if they were, the Dukes would most definitely take the top spot.
As with most of the schools on this list, James Madison’s potential is furthered by the school’s football program. While they aren’t at the FBS level, the Dukes have not only fielded a team that is a perennial national title contender, but also has won two FCS Championships. This feat means greater national exposure and — most importantly — increased revenue streams.
Thus, it’s no surprise that JMU was 61st in total revenue among public schools from 2017-18, a figure which places this CAA team above prominent Mountain West and AAC programs. Combine that influx of cash with the Atlantic Union Bank Center — the Dukes’ new arena set to open next season — and the rapid expansion of the school itself, and it would not be surprising whatsoever to see JMU basketball join its gridiron classmates in mid-major relevancy.
Illinois State Redbirds
Unbelievably, this program owns the longest NCAA Tournament drought of any team in the Missouri Valley Conference. Even more unbelievable is that Kevin Stallings was the last coach to take them to the Big Dance.
Yet this team still manages to fill well over half of its arena — one that is already among the largest at the mid-major level and outsizes many ACC and SEC complexes — year after year. It’s difficult for a school at the mid-major level to develop a fanbase that’s committed in the way Redbird fans are, and the potential for it to grow and strengthen with greater success is promising. Their revenue stream is also the highest of the public schools in the MVC, and even though they’ve regressed this year because of key departures, they have a young coach who led this team to 28 wins only four years ago.
If Illinois State is finally able to make the jump back into MVC dominance and national prominence, they’ll already have the facilities and fan support ready to sustain their success instead of allowing it to be just a flash in the pan.
It is incomprehensible that any recruit who visits Pepperdine’s campus doesn’t commit to the school on the spot (Editor’s note: Agreed). It’s legitimately one of the most gorgeous collegiate settings in the United States, and one would think that many guys would be sold on the idea to spend a couple of years playing ball in Malibu.
Additionally, Pepperdine’s placement in the WCC gives them the boost of having quality opponents like Gonzaga, BYU and Saint Mary’s already baked into their schedule, meaning that the potential for an at-large bid isn’t as far-fetched as it is in other non-major conferences. While facilities like Firestone Fieldhouse are lagging behind the competition, Pepperdine’s geographic advantages should be a powerful weapon in it efforts to rise to the level of their conference foes.
Boise State Broncos
The Broncos make a lot of money. Like James Madison, that’s largely due to the prominence of their football program, which has been in the upper echelons of the sport for the better part of this century.
However, that football success belies the feats that the Broncos have accomplished on the hardwood during the Leon Rice era, which has already seen BSU attend two NCAA Tournaments and put up 20+ wins seven times (the Broncos are currently only one win away from 20 this season).
Similar to Illinois State, the fan base has been ever-present, which has given Boise State attendance numbers in the top 100 of the NCAA since 2013. Even last season, when the Broncos finished with an undesirable 13-20 record, they saw an increase in average attendance from 5,396 to 6,747, which was the 11th-largest jump last year.
With next year’s team poised to be perhaps the best in the Mountain West, it would be no surprised to see the Broncos transformed into a perennial MWC contender like San Diego State.
Hawaii Rainbow Warriors
Hawaii is the big spender in the Big West, and that advantage is because it is the conference’s only school with an FBS football program. This team has the ability to significantly outspend its conference foes, as their revenue numbers figure into the top 70 among public schools.
Fortunately for them, that money isn’t going to waste. Hawaii has consistently been competitive since jumping to the Big West, with their biggest moment coming in 2016 as they took down 4 seed Cal in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
However, much like Pepperdine, Hawaii’s biggest sell is that it has a geographic advantage over, well, everyone.
It’s not even close.
Stony Brook Seawolves
Thanks to nailing two consecutive coaching hires (Steve Pikiell and then Jeff Boals), Stony Brook has been a perennial America East contender for the past decade. While they finally managed to reach the NCAA Tournament in 2016, they’ve still played second fiddle to the Vermont Catamounts for most of their recent history.
However, they’ve been winning the America East arms race, raking in cash that competitors like the Catamounts and Albany Great Danes are millions of dollars away from matching. That has translated to sleek and shiny upgrades to the Island Federal Credit Union Arena, making it perhaps the nicest venue in the entire conference.
Factor in that their enrollment dwarfs that of other league schools, and it’s easy to see why this school is ready and waiting to take the title of AE powerhouse from Vermont’s mantle.
Texas State Bobcats
There are plenty of Sun Belt schools — Georgia State and Louisiana come to mind — that could have been included here, but Texas State gets the edge because the Bobcats’ Strahan Arena is far nicer than GSU Sports Arena or the Cajundome.
Thanks to a $60 million renovation in 2018, Strahan Arena thoroughly puts other Sun Belt facilities to shame, which is important given the advantages places like Georgia State have over Texas State (Atlanta is clearly a better city than San Marcos). Given their massive student population and the frequency with which programs have come and gone through the Sun Belt in recent years, this is an investment likely made with upward conference movement in mind, and the school’s basketball program stands to benefit from opening its coffers.