Mid-Major programs are constantly overlooked. With the most to gain and the most to lose, life as a mid-major is challenging.
A Mid-major program must be outstanding to gain national attention. The pressures for a program face run high as the margin for error is slim. One loss can be detrimental and one win may not bring any adoration. As time is running down on the 2020-2021 season all eyes are on the NCAA tournament. Here are five mid-majors who have the most to prove through the final stretch of the season.
It has only happened twice before in all of NCAA Division I basketball and Bellarmine can become the third team in history to win its conference regular season in its first year of reclassification. Bellarmine is looking to repeat the history made by Merrimack last year after they became the only team to win an outright conference championship in its first year of reclassification. Birmingham Southern shared a conference title in 2004 in their first year of reclassification. Bellarmine has two games remaining at home against Liberty. Bellarmine (10-2) currently has a one-game lead over Liberty (8-2) in the conference and is on a 10-game winning streak. More is at stake than just the ASUN title. The Knights are currently ranked 165 at KenPom and have a chance to finish as the highest-ranked team in their first year of reclassification. Only Seattle, Cal Baptist, and North Dakota State have finished ranked above 200 as first-year reclassifying teams. North Dakota State’s rank of 163 in 2006 is the target Bellarmine can reach and possibly become the best team ever in the KenPom era in their first year as a Division I member.
Grand Canyon has been oh so close. Since the Antelopes began their reclassification in 2014, they have been a formidable force in the Western Athletic Conference. Grand Canyon has finished in the top three in the WAC in six of seven seasons and in their only two years eligible for the WAC tournament, Grand Canyon made runs to the championship game before falling to New Mexico State both times. This seems to be the Antelopes year. Grand Canyon is currently in first place in the WAC and 12-3 overall. The Antelopes have already swept their arch-nemesis, New Mexico State. KenPom has them predicted to finish the season undefeated in the WAC and it is looking as if Grand Canyon will be dancing in March. This is a big jump for a team and a much-needed boost in a program that is committed to making basketball great.
Wright State has done everything except making themselves that March Madness Cinderella. In the past five seasons, Wright State has finished with at least 20 wins. They finished first or second in the Horizon League four times and their fifth-place finish in 2016-2017 was only by three games. They have reached four Horizon League semifinals and three Horizon League finals. Yet, the Raiders have only been able to win the Horizon League tournament once in that span. Wright State is currently ranked 54th at KenPom, it’s highest ranking ever, they are tied for first with Cleveland State and have won nine games in a row. The one thing Wright State and Scott Nagy are missing is an NCAA tournament win. This team is capable of just that in March if they can make it out of the Horizon League tournament unscathed.
In the KenPom era (since 2001-2002 season), only eight teams have finished the regular season zero or one loss. Winthrop is on pace to do just that. Yet, if Winthrop doesn’t win the Big South tournament it may not have a chance to prove itself in the NCAA tournament. Unlike other one-loss teams like Michigan, nothing is certain for Winthrop, Colgate, or Belmont. Despite being 16-1 in the Big South and having a 4.5 game lead in the conference standings, Winthrop is still playing for their life. The Eagles are playing for their NCAA tournament hopes, there is nothing guaranteed.
Like Winthrop, Belmont can do what so many teams cannot and finish the regular season with only one loss. The difference is, how Belmont has done it. The Bruins have won all but five games by double digits and are slowly climbing the KenPom rankings coming in at 73. What Belmont is playing for however is an NCAA tournament birth. In the KenPom era, no team with less than five losses has not made the NCAA tournament, however, Belmont is not getting any consideration for potentially being an at-large team if they don’t win the OVC tournament. Belmont is playing for pride. Belmont is playing for respect. Belmont is playing for program history. To continue Rick Byrd’s legacy in Casey Alexander’s second year with the Bruins.
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