In college basketball, Butler doesn't ride alone

Small college basketball teams like Gonzaga, Memphis, and Xavier, as well as Butler, have notched impressive NCAA results over the past decade.

By , Guest blogger

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    Butler's Shelvin Mack celebrates the team's 63-56 win over Kansas State in the NCAA West Regional final college basketball game in Salt Lake City on March 27. The NCAA results of small college teams like Butler, Gonzaga, Memphis, and Xavier are impressive.
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Four years after George Mason Wins the Lottery, Butler has reached the thin air normally reserved for teams from the "major conferences." Their success prompted me to do a comparison among the "little guys."

Of course, such comparisons bring up the question of what is "major?" The term "mid-major" is generally applied now to just about any conference outside the Big Six (ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Big East, SEC, Pac 10) even though some of these might be best described as "Near Major" (USA, A10?, Mountain West?), Mid Tier, and Low Tier. For time and space, I'm proceeding with the "outside the Big Six" definition, even though this throws in Cornell with Memphis.

The other issue is how to measure success. Given no exact metric, I'm using three yardsticks related to NCAA tournament success: total wins over 2000-2010, number of years with wins, and highest level of advancement. The results appear in the table below (based on a quick tabulation, so errors likely):
'

Rank by Wins Rank by Years with Wins Rank by Highest Level
Gonzaga (11) Gonzaga (7) Memphis (Final)
Memphis (11) Xavier (6) Butler (Semifinal + ?)
Xavier (10) Memphis (5) George Mason (SemiFinal)
Butler (8 + ?) Butler (4) Memphis (F8 - 3)
S. Illinois (5) Nevada (3) Xavier (F8 - 2)
Tulsa (5) S. Illinois (3) Davidson (F8)
George Mason(4) Tulsa (3) Temple (F8)
Kent (4) Utah (3) Gonzaga (S16 - 4)
Nevada (4) Kent (2) Memphis (S16 - 4)
St. Joseph (4) Pacific (2) Butler (S16 - 3)
Temple (4) Sienna (2) S. Illinois (S16 - 2)
Utah (4) St. Joseph (2)  
Davidson (3) Temple (2)  
UAB (3) UAB (2)  
UNLV (3) UNLV (2)  
WKU (3) VCU (2)  
Bradley (2) WKU (2)  
Cornell (2)    
N. Iowa (2)    
Pacific (2)    
St. Mary's (2)    
UW-Mil. (2)    
Wichita St. (2)    


Along with who is included and how to measure success, the time frame also matters. If two more years are included, Gonzaga's win total increases to 14 and they have a Final 8 appearance. Utah's relative performance also increases from a couple more years.

The decade long performances of programs such as Gonzaga, Memphis, Xavier, and Butler are very impressive. To find programs averaging more than a win per year, one has to look at places like Kansas, North Carolina, and Duke. Their performances stand above past national champs such as Louisville or Louisville and way out front of champs-turned-strugglers like Arkansas. The talking heads who like to refer to how Gonzaga hasn't beaten X or advanced past the Sweet 16 in more than a decade just don't get it.

While my interests here lie mainly with individual team performance, some interesting conference comparisons jumped out also. For example, five different teams from Butler's relatively obscure Horizon league have won NCAA tourney games, four from Gonzaga's WAC, and a whopping seven from the Missouri Valley have won. More competition at the conference level, such as the MVC, both helps and hurts individual teams -- helps by playing better competition, raising seeds and hurts by making it tougher to make the tournament.

One thing that jumps out at me from these numbers is how well these "mid-majors" perform relative to the Big Six teams when playing them at neutral sites. Regular season records are very much skewed by the ability of Big Six teams to stack their home schedule. It would be interesting to look at regular season matchups at neutral court sites or on the home sites of the "little guys" -- maybe a different post down the road.

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