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.

No. 22 Tennessee beats No. 3 Kansas 64-50 for Atlantis title

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
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PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas – Tennessee’s players proved to be determined defenders and relentless rebounders, along with having the kind of toughness to ensure the reigning national champions would have little chance to get comfortable.

It was all enough to give the 22nd-ranked Volunteers a title of their own, along with the blueprint that coach Rick Barnes hopes they follow the rest of the year.

Santiago Vescovi scored 20 points while Tennessee locked down on third-ranked Kansas in a 64-50 win Friday night in the championship game at the Battle 4 Atlantis, snapping the Jayhawks’ 17-game winning streak.

Vescovi hit five 3-pointers as the tournament’s most valuable player for the Volunteers (5-1), who dominated the glass, overcame their own turnover troubles and made the Jayhawks work for clean looks. And for the third time in as many days, Tennessee won without leading scorer Josiah-Jordan James (knee soreness).

Perhaps that’s why reserve guard Zakai Zeigler, who had 14 points and four steals, showed up wearing sunglasses to the postgame news conference after the Volunteers had danced and hollered through the on-court trophy ceremony.

“We know if you can’t stop the man in front of you, then you’ll have no shot at winning the game,” Zeigler said, adding: “We just like to play defense, and we just happen to be good at it.”

The Vols held the Jayhawks to 32.1% shooting, bothering them with size and length around the rim. They also took the ball right at the Jayhawks with 5-foot-9 Zeigler leading the way, down to him refusing to let go of a jump ball and trading words with 6-8 forward Jalen Wilson.

Zeigler’s night included a 3-pointer to beat the shot clock at the 7-minute mark to push Tennessee’s lead to 56-38. He followed with another big one from the right wing with 4:42 left after Kansas had closed within 11.

Wilson and Joseph Yesefu each scored 14 points to lead the Jayhawks (6-1), who shot 28.6% in the first half and never warmed up. They made 5 of 21 3-pointers in what was an all-around rough night, from losing starting guard Dajuan Harris to fouls with 9 minutes left to failing to keep the Vols off the glass (45-27).

“We played a team tonight that was older and more mature and obviously played stronger and tougher,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “We didn’t handle the situation near as well as what I would hope a poised team would.”

BIG PICTURE

Tennessee: The Volunteers opened the tournament with a win over Butler, then grinded through an overtime win against Southern California in Thursday’s semifinals. This time, Tennessee played in front the entire way en route to its first title in three tries at the Atlantis resort.

“I think the main thing from the whole week was stay together through tough times, that’s what you’ve got to do,” Vescovi said.

Kansas: The Jayhawks didn’t have an easy first two days in the Bahamas. First came a battle to the final minutes with North Carolina State. Then came Thursday’s overtime win against Wisconsin on Bobby Pettiford Jr.’s last-second putback. But they never looked in any type of offensive flow this time with their smaller lineup.

“I feel like if we were able to get them out of place and not just have them standing there, waiting to contest a layup, that could’ve gave us some better chances at finishing at the rim,” Wilson said.

STRONG RUN

Tennessee held its three Atlantis opponents to 36.9% shooting and 15 of 59 (25.4%) from 3-point range. The Volunteers also averaged a +9 rebounding margin, ending with having Jonas Aidoo (nine) leading five players snagging at least six rebounds against Kansas.

“You can be a good defensive team but if you can’t be a great one if you give them second and third shots,” Barnes said.

SIDELINED

Beyond Harris’ foul trouble, the Jayhawks played most of the way without Pettiford, who exited midway through the first half grabbing at his right leg.

Afterward, Self said he would be out “for a while” with a hamstring strain.

UP NEXT

Tennessee: The Volunteers return home to host McNeese State on Wednesday.

Kansas: The Jayhawks host Texas Southern on Monday.

BYU erases 23-point deficit, beats Dayton in overtime 79-75

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
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NASSAU, Bahamas – Gideon George scored 21 points and combined with Jaxson Robinson and Rudi Williams for BYU’s 15 overtime points as the Cougars came back from a 23-point deficit to beat Dayton 79-75 in overtime Friday.

BYU’s victory came in the seventh-place game in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament.

George’s 3-pointer with 2:19 left in regulation gave BYU (4-3) its first lead after Dayton scored the first 10 points of the game and led 32-9 with six minutes left in the first half.

Mike Sharavjamts’ basket gave the lead back to Dayton but George’s free throw with a minute left sent the game into overtime.

Dayton got the first points in overtime but Robinson’s 3-pointer gave BYU the lead for good halfway through the extra period.

Robinson had 14 points, Dallin Hall 12 and Williams 11 to join George in double figures for BYU.

DaRon Holmes II scored 21 points and Sharavjamts 15 for Dayton (3-4). The Flyers lost starting guards Kobe Elvis and Malachi Smith to lower-body injuries in the second half, Smith with with just seconds left in regulation.

Portland beats Villanova 83-71 in Phil Knight Invitational

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
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PORTLAND, Ore. – Moses Wood scored 16 points and Portland beat Villanova 83-71 on Friday in the Phil Knight Invitational.

Villanova (2-4) has lost three straight games, including an overtime loss to Iowa State on Thursday to drop below .500 for the first time since March 7, 2012.

Vasilije Vucinic’s layup with 4:16 remaining in the first half gave Portland the lead for good. The Pilots had an eight-point lead at halftime and scored the first 10 points of the second half.

Wood added six rebounds and three blocks for the Pilots (5-3). Tyler Robertson scored 15 points while shooting 6 for 12 (1 for 5 from 3-point range) and added seven rebounds and eight assists. Kristian Sjolund recorded 14 points and shot 5 for 7 (2 for 3 from 3-point range).

Caleb Daniels finished with 18 points and seven rebounds for the Wildcats. Villanova also got 14 points from Jordan Longino. Brandon Slater had 11 points.

Caleb Grill, Iowa State topples No. 1 North Carolina 70-65

Syndication: The Des Moines Register
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PORTLAND, Ore. – Caleb Grill has followed T.J. Otzelberger from South Dakota State to UNLV and now back to Iowa State hoping the pair could share a moment like they did Friday.

Taking down the No. 1 team in the country was another bookmark moment in a long journey for the pair.

“I’m actually really enjoying sitting next to him from this moment right now just thinking about how long we’ve known each other and how cool this really was,” Otzelberger said.

Grill hit seven 3-pointers and scored a career-high 31 points and Iowa State rallied in the final five minutes to stun No. 1 North Carolina 70-65 in the semifinals of the Phil Knight Invitational.

Iowa State (5-0) picked up just its third win over a team ranked No. 1 in the AP Top 25. The Cyclones are 3-22 against No. 1 teams, with the other wins coming against Kansas in 1957 and Oklahoma in 2016.

The Cyclones can now add North Carolina (5-1) to the list.

“I was just staying the course of the game. I never really thought about it and the game just kind of came to me,” Grill said.

Grill was averaging 7.3 points and had made just 4 of 24 3-point attempts for the season entering Friday. But he couldn’t be stopped from beyond the arc, hitting a pair of big 3s to spark Iowa State’s late rally. His deep fadeaway jumper just inside the 3-point line with 1:40 left gave Iowa State a 63-61 lead and the Cyclones did just enough at the free throw line in the final minute to close out the upset victory.

Grill’s previous career high was 27 points while playing for UNLV in the 2020-21 season against Alabama. He also hit seven 3-pointers in that game.

Grill originally signed with South Dakota State when Otzelberger was the coach there. He was released from his commitment when Otzelberger took the head job at UNLV and started his career at Iowa State before deciding to join his coach in Las Vegas.

When Otzelberger returned to Ames, Grill followed again.

“Just having him be the first person that really had belief in me, it’s just really special what he’s done for me and my family and everything we’ve done,” Grill said.

Jaren Holmes added 22 points and the Cyclones withstood off shooting games from Aljaz Kunc and Gabe Kalscheur, who combined for three points and missed all eight of their shot attempts. Both were averaging double figures scoring for Iowa State.

RJ Davis led North Carolina with 15 points, Armando Bacot added 14 and Caleb Love scored 12. But the Tar Heels will lament a series of mistakes in the closing minutes that allowed Iowa State to rally.

“We had wide open threes. We were able to get to the basket. We were able to get whatever we wanted, we just didn’t make those shots,” North Carolina coach Hubert Davis said.

North Carolina led 57-49 after Leaky Black’s layup with 5:43 left, but missed four of its final six shots and had four turnovers during that span.

“We turned the ball over a couple of times and you just can’t do that in late-game situations,” Davis said. “You have to be sound and discipline and you have to do that on both ends of the floor and we just didn’t do it.”

NO. 1 LOSSES

North Carolina lost as the No. 1 team in the country for the first time since Nov. 21, 2015 when it lost 71-67 at Northern Iowa. The Tar Heels also lost as No. 1 to UNLV in 2011 at a Thanksgiving tournament.

BIG PICTURE

North Carolina: Pete Nance wasn’t able to contribute in the same way he did in Thursday’s opening round. Nance, who tied his career high with 28 points against Portland, didn’t score for the first 27 minutes and finished with seven points.

Iowa State: The Cyclones were playing a No. 1 team from outside their conference for the first time since 1999 when they faced Cincinnati in the championship game of the Big Island Invitational.

UP NEXT

Iowa State will face either No. 18 Alabama or No. 20 UConn in the championship game while the Tar Heels will face the loser for third place.

No. 8 Duke locks down late, holds off Xavier 71-64

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports
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PORTLAND, Ore. – After a shaky offensive performance in the opening round of the Phil Knight Legacy tournament, Duke coach Jon Scheyer wanted to see Jeremy Roach get back to playing more instinctively, especially at the offensive end of the floor.

Roach responded with a season-high 21 points, Mark Mitchell added 16 and No. 8 Duke withstood Xavier’s second-half comeback for a 71-64 win on Friday.

The Blue Devils (6-1) advanced to the championship game thanks to the play of their standout guard and another strong defensive effort. Roach came one point shy of matching his career high, and the Blue Devils rebounded after an unexpectedly tight victory over Oregon State in the opening round of the event.

Roach was 3 of 14 shooting against Oregon State as the Blue Devils scored a season-low 54 points. He made 9 of 15 shots and had five assists against Xavier.

“There’s a lot that falls on your shoulders so you can end up overthinking it a little bit,” Scheyer said. “The thing that I love for him today is he just was him. And when he’s that way, he is to me the best guard in the country.”

The Musketeers (4-2) were held to two points over the final five minutes and missed their last four shot attempts. Souley Boum scored 23 points and Adam Kunkel had 13. Kunkel didn’t play the last 11 minutes after taking a hard fall committing a foul.

Xavier leading scorer Jack Nudge was 1 of 13 shooting and finished with five points.

“Jack played a great effort. He really did. He was ready for the game. He just had one of those nights where the ball didn’t go in the basket,” Xavier coach Sean Miller said.

At the same time, Miller was disappointed in what he called the “fracturing” he saw from his team.

“There were spurts and segments of the game where I thought we reflected our style, how we’re trying to play, whether it be defense and offense. But there were way too many segments of the game, if not most of the game, where we were at times in our own way,” Miller said.

Mitchell scored seven points in the opening minutes of the second half, including a pair of layups, and he hit a 3-pointer from the wing that gave Duke a 49-36 lead, its largest of the game.

That’s when Xavier’s comeback started. The Musketeers pulled within three points on several occasions, but Duke answered each time. Desmond Claude’s driving layup pulled Xavier within 63-60 with 5:51 left, but Ryan Young scored for Duke and Xavier didn’t make another basket.

Roach’s jumper with 2:40 left pushed Duke’s lead to 69-62.

“We like to play inside out but I mean, when guys are hitting shots it just opens up for everybody else,” Roach said. “Just try to continue to be consistent hitting shots and I think we’ll be fine.”

Kyle Filipowski had 12 points and was not Duke’s leading scorer for the first time in five games.

BIG PICTURE

Duke: The Blue Devils’ dominance on the backboards finally came to an end. Duke had outrebounded each of its first six opponents by double figures, the longest such stretch in school history. But Xavier’s interior size limited Duke to a 33-32 advantage on the glass. The Blue Devils had 12 second-chance points.

Xavier: The Musketeers played an Atlantic Coast Conference team for the first time since beating Virginia Tech in last year’s NIT Season Tip-Off. Xavier dropped to 0-2 against ranked opponents this season, having lost to Indiana last week. The Musketeers will play another ranked foe in Sunday’s third-place game.

UP NEXT

Duke will face the Gonzaga-Purdue winner in the championship game on Sunday, while Xavier will play the loser.