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What is a Mid Major?

I had a commenter on my last post ask why George Mason was considered the first mid-major to make a Final Four since 1979 when schools like Utah and UNLV had been there and in the case of the latter actually won the title? It turns out the commenter had a legitimate point, at least technically speaking. The way the landscape of college basketball is laid out there are essentially six power conferences and then a group of good conferences which are called "mid-major" conferences. After that there are low major conferences who are one bid leagues which become #15 or #16 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. By every available definition I can find after consulting Wikepedia and the good people at the Inside Carolina message board UNLV and Utah came from mid-major conferences and are technically speaking considered mid-major schools. So, what why is the media so insisting that GM's run is the first for a mid-major since 1979 when both Penn and Indiana St. made it to the final weekend? The most expedient explanation is that the term "mid major" is not entirely absolute and is not applied simply based on conference association. The term "mid major" is used as a label for a certain type of school or conference which produce consistently good basketball but not at the elite level. Here are the criteria of a true "mid major" as described by the label:

-Teams in a historical 1-2 two bid league(The MVC broke this mold by getting four this season)
-Teams that are generally seeded in the lower half of the bracket i.e. #8 or lower.
-Team that do not tend win more than 1 or 2 tournament games.
-Teams that tend to play most power conference opponents on the road and fail to compete with them or win.
-Teams that are generally unranked or ranked for a week than dropped at the first loss
-Teams and conferences that are generally unknown.

So how does schools like Utah, UNLV and Gonzaga fit in with this definition considering the conferences they were/are in are fit the criteria above? They don't because their level of play raised their profile and moved them from a mid-major level to the power conference level even if their conference association is unchanged. In other words if a team excels to the point where they can actively compete and win against traditional power conference schools then they are no longer considered a "mid major." Gonzaga is a perfect recent example of a team who made the transistion. Gonzaga was a #10 seed in the West regional in 1999 when they lost to UConn in the Elite Eight. The Zags were considered a mid-major school and their run was placed on par with the George Mason run this year. However, if Gonzaga had held on against UCLA and then beaten Memphis to make it to the Final Four would they be considered "the first mid-major since 1979 to make the Final Four?" Probably not because none of the criteria above, while applicable seven years ago, no longer applies to Gonzaga. They have been a ranked school, they have been seeded high in the tournament, they have won games in the NCAA Tourney, they are routinely winners against power conference opponents, and they are far from being an unknown commodity. UNLV and Utah had the same situation where they reached a point of being ranked and seeded high where they could beat power conference teams on a regular basis. Simply because a team plays in a weaker conference does not mean they cannot rise to the same level as a power conference elite.

What you have in the use of the term "mid major" is a nuanced label based on the evaluation of a team and not hard, fast conference designations based on records or RPI ratings. On the conference level it refers to those leagues which are not one of the power conferences. Therefore any school in that conference is considered by default to be a mid major school. That being said a school can shed its "mid major" label by moving to the elite level by beating power conference schools therefore showing themselves to be a power school from a mid major conference. This is the case for Gonzaga and was the case for UNLV and Utah. In the case of George Mason they were not totally off the radar in many respects but their conference is a mid-major conference and nothing GM had done prior to the tournament would serve to change its designation from being a mid major to an elite school.

So, while on a technical level there have been schools from mid major conferences in the Final Four since 1979 those schools were not considered to have been on the mid major level. George Mason is from a mid major conference and according to every criteria that matters prior to the tournament, they are to be considered a mid major school. Whether they will be one a week from now or move into the land of the elite is the telling question.