Blogger Spotlight: The Valley, CAA and Bally? It’s time for The Mid-Majority

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BracketBuster weekend’s now in its ninth edition. While it’s no longer the only way college hoops fans can see non-BCS teams on TV – thank you, Internet – one thing’s the same: The Mid-Majority remains the premier web site for everything you need to know about those teams.

Thus, the double-dose of Blogger Spotlight this week. I figure there’s no better way to follow a Q&A with Ryan Kish of georgemasonbasketball.blogspot.com than by spotlighting the man behind MidMajority.com, Kyle Whelliston.

Kyle spends the college basketball season on the road, filing dispatches on everything related to life watching mid-major basketball. If the game had a bard (and if that bard had Bally), telling tales to a rapt audience, Kyle’s it.

He also has some of the most devoted readers on the web. They send him stories of his own, questions and, occasionally, money. That last part’s significant because he does everything as an independent site. If you like what he does, fund his travels. You won’t be sorry (especially when he provides free stuff for doing so!)

Q: Apologies to regular readers of The Mid-Majority for this first question. It’s intended for NBCSports.com readers who might not be familiar with your site. It focuses on what you’ve termed the “Other 25” – conferences who aren’t the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Mountain West, Pac-10 and SEC – conferences that don’t sink massive financial resources into their athletic departments. (Gonzaga, Xavier and Memphis are excepted for specific reasons.)

That’s the 5-cent description. Given the treasure trove of information available on The Mid-Majority – essays, message boards, schedules, live updates, Twitter streams, fan reports and stats (my word, the stats!) – I’d call it a site for basketball fans, period. Please, Kyle, help me. Provide a better description of The Mid-Majority.

A: Thanks, Mike. I guess The Mid-Majority is a college basketball site for people who went to too much college. The liberal arts tradition has sent a lot of us out into the world heads full of stuff we’ll never use in a career setting, and the site really reflects that. In addition to trying to make sense of a chaotic mass of limited-budget university sports, there’s a lot of philosophy, social science, math, Robotics, geography, and literary references. Oh god, the literary references. It’s like a basketball class taught by a wacky professor, instead of expert analysis from a guy wearing makeup in a TV studio. It’s obviously not for everybody. If you hated going to class, you’ll probably hate TMM too.

Q: BracketBuster weekend exposes college basketball fans to teams they might not normally see until March, when those mid-major teams ruin their NCAA tournament bracket. Twenty-two teams get a spot on TV, while nearly 100 others have non-conference games against teams they might not normally schedule. Is it an event that ultimately helps mid-major schools, or would they all be better off keeping that travel money in their pocket? After all, fans can still watch teams on #pixelvision.

A: I, like just about everyone else, have spent the last few Februaries wondering what BracketBusters means anymore. Eight years ago, teams from leagues like the CAA and MVC and WCC really never got on TV during the regular season. Like, ever. The internet wasn’t like it is now; people still called these things “journals” instead of “blogs,” and watching a “live steam” was wrangling RealPlayer until it stopped crashing your browser. Now, you can watch or time-shift a Horizon League game any time you want.

The mystery is gone. Back then, Creighton would come out of a magic cornfield like in “Field of Dreams.” Now, everybody sees teams like George Mason and Saint Mary’s and Utah State coming from months away. It’s a relevance issue, but there’s still a need for a showcase event for the best eight or twelve mids to bolster their profiles, like the original 2003 version was set up. As it is, I think teams just have to get whatever they can out of BracketBusters. In most of the 114 cases, it’s nothing.

(Kyle also expanded on this topic at TMM. You can his post here.) 

Q: Some schools – rightly so – object to the term mid-major. Is there an acceptable term for lazy media types and fans who refuse to think otherwise? Or does our need to define everything simply hinder our ability to watch, enjoy and revel in the fact that every conference has great basketball?

A: The term was basically hijacked. Back in the 1970s, it was a designation for college basketball that wasn’t happening in the premier conferences. The label got stuck on Gonzaga a decade ago because folks needed a descriptor and second-reference term for small-conference overachievement, and too much “Cinderella” always results in “who you calling a girl?” Arguing about language gets kind of crazy when there’s no clear etymological link to Latin or French.

My definition has always gone back to the “not big” root. These are schools that struggle upward against the ceilings of their resources, which makes it compelling stuff. There are those schools that have beaten the system — Gonzaga, Memphis and Xavier in particular — but what they’ve done is go all in on this sport, drop or downgrade football, and spend about 30 percent of their athletic budgets on basketball. More schools should really try that.

Q: You’re a well-traveled man. Are there any conferences or schools for which you have an affinity? It seems you are fond of the Missouri Valley and Colonial Athletic schools in particular. And Butler did provide ample material for your book, “One Beautiful Season.”

A: I went to a CAA school (Drexel), and the Missouri Valley is where I first personally encountered the same level of life-or-death hoops that the major conferences are supposed to have U.S. patents on. The rivalries out there are so intense, and last a lifetime… the median age of those crowds is quite high, because they never stop being fans. I’ve talked to folks who still lose sleep over Arch Madness games from 10 years ago. I’ve met people out there who can’t intermarry with alums from other MVC schools because of family objections. I didn’t really love this stuff until I went to the Valley, it really rubbed off.

Q: About “One Beautiful Season.” I’d call it an ode to the 2009-10 season, but it’s much more. It takes a critical look at the NCAA, college hoops history, the NCAA tournament and the financial divide. Also, there are the personal anecdotes. My faves: Your day spent cleaning the Palestra and your time as Coach Kyle. (Interested readers can buy the book here.)  

Hm. That’s not much of a question, more of a fawning. ANYWAY, what aspects about it surprised you the most?

A: Hey, I appreciate any plug. It was originally a series of vignettes about teams and players and coaches and my own travels, but then Butler happened. So it became an opportunity to look at everything that led up to Gordon Hayward’s shot. As in everything — it’s a pretty thick book. There’s a lot of stuff in there about the formation and evolution of conferences, the NCAA’s anti-New York sentiment after the point-shaving scandals, as well as television’s effects on the bracket, conference tournaments, and inter-conference migration patterns. 

As far as surprises go, I find it endlessly fascinating that two unrelated events in the late 1970s — the Bird-Magic game and the football subdivision split that created all these new leagues and autobids — made March what it is now. The underdog Cinderella romance of it all was really a fortunate laboratory accident. There’s a very viable alternate history where there’s a 32-team tournament featuring only the big boys, along with the same small handful of elite invitees as before.

Mixed in, there’s plenty of game action and Omar Samhan quotes. Also, yes! I am 2-0 as a Division I assistant coach, not everyone can say that.

Q: That 2-0 coaching record might make some want to enter the profession. But it’s hardly a glamorous life for most, right?

A: I have so much respect for assistant coaches. It’s a profession with a lot of churn, and most will never, ever get that shot at a D1 head job. A lot of folks couldn’t handle the bus rides, the 800-mile recruiting trips, the constant management of teenage egos, being on call 24 hours a day to deal with all the little crises (95 percent of which never get out in the media), and the 20-hour days. I know I couldn’t. You really have to love basketball with every fiber of your being. 

Q: About your travels. You wrote recently that life on the road might be coming to an end. No more 100 games. But it’s allowed you to set a more ambitious 800 games project that involves college basketball fans. How will that work?

A: That’s going to be a crowdsourced collection of 500-word game reports from students and fans, just letting others out there know what it’s like at their gym and in their league. We’re doing some practice runs on most Fridays, and some of the stories that have come in have been astoundingly good. (Editor’s note: Like this one.) I don’t know if we’ll collect 800 of them, but it looks like it’s going to be really great.

Q: Much of hoops nation is fawning over Jimmer Fredette. Is a fair response: “What’s he got over Norris Cole or Charles Jenkins?”

A: If the CAA or Horizon League had the kind of television coverage that’s available to BYU, they might have their cults too. College basketball seems particularly susceptible to this sort of thing. There’s not a lot of difference between what’s going on now, and the Psycho T/Adam Morrison/J.J. Redick mania of the past few years. It’s harmless fun, though. Best of luck to the gentleman, I say. I hope he finds an NBA team that will give him 35 percent of its shots, but he won’t. He’ll be a highly effective Allen wrench for someone, he’s got an incredible shot. 

Q: There was George Mason in 2006, Davidson in 2008 and Butler in 2010. Those three schools cemented their place in March lore thanks to their remarkable — and let’s face it, fun — runs through the NCAA tournament. What similarities should we draw from each. Or should we just let them and their seasons stand on their own?

A: George Mason 2006 was a team’s team — so unselfish and so much a single unit on the floor. Davidson 2008 had a once-in-a-lifetime player. Butler 2010 was a combination of  fortunate breaks, relentless defense, and seat-edge coaching decisions. But it looks like all three runs might have something in common: no NCAA bid the next year. Continuity below the Red Line is really, really tough. 

Q: Have you sketched out your March travel plans yet? Do you ever enter the NCAA tournament with hopes of seeing another Davidson, or is that just setting yourself up for disappointment? And will there ever be a year that doesn’t end with a loss?

A: I hope to go all out for conference tournaments, get to five or six and see 20-25 games. That, in my opinion, is the best time of the year. Those championships really mean something. They’re entries on a bracket to most fans, but winning the Summit League or NEC or SWAC means a banner in the gym and a 10-year reunion weekend down the road. Really looking forward to the First Four; I went to the Play-In Game six years in a row, and I’m curious to see how this new wrinkle shakes out. From there, who knows. I’ll just go where the bracket leads, as long as resources will allow.

“It always ends in a loss” has always been our unofficial March tagline. It does end in a loss for all these teams, even Butler 2010, when it almost didn’t. Someday, one of our small-conference teams might make that shot and win it all.

You can read more at midmajority.com and follow Kyle on Twitter @midmajority.

Want more? I’m also on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.