Non-Major Struggle: Mid-majors fill scheduling gaps with each other

AP Photo/Laurence Kesterson

Justin Young is the editor-in-chief of

ATLANTA — Kansas is going to the tournament. So is Michigan State. And we know Duke
and Kentucky will get there, too. The blue bloods are built for March. So are plenty of teams from the conferences they come from.

But talented teams in the non power conferences are trying to build their own cases for the selection committee any way they can.

The bottom line is this for the non-major schools — be the very best team in your respective conference for a week in March. Winning the league tournament is the only sure-fire way to punch a ticket to the biggest show in college hoops.

The coaches aren’t blind to this. That’s why some of the very best non-major programs in America are trying their best to play each other.

On opening night of college hoops, two talented non-majors locked horns and traded buckets and stops for 40 minutes. Georgia State beat East Tennessee State 74-68 in front of a raucous home crowd in downtown Atlanta.

“We beat a NCAA tournament team today. That team is well coached and they will play in the NCAA tournament,” Georgia State head coach Ron Hunter said after the game.

He could be right. ETSU only returns one starter from last year’s 25-win team but made the Panthers scratch and claw for the home court win.

Playing a team like the SoCon school is a must for a school like Georgia State.

“We have to play these kinds of games,” Hunter said. “The Big 12 and the ACC, they’re going to 20 league games. That’s going to take away more games for us to play. You have to understand where you are at.

“I don’t want to play our best basketball now because we have to go win the Sun Belt Conference tournament so we can get to the NCAA tournament. I’ll be honest with you, we can go 31-0, we still gotta win the tournament. That’s the nature of it.”

ETSU head coach Steve Forbes, no stranger of playing an aggressive non-league schedule, said he doesn’t know why teams like his wouldn’t have schedule like his.

“We need teams like us to stop playing these easy money games and start playing teams that are going to help you,” Forbes said.

His point goes farther than just preparing his team for winning his respective league. He’s looking ahead to the post-season.

“We have to talk about better scheduling so we can get a better seed,” Forbes said. “So when the selection committee puts us in as a 10, or an 11 or a 12 (in the NCAA tournament), we have a better chance to win. That means more money for our school. When you are a 14 seed or below, you don’t have a very good chance of winning.”

After watching senior guard Jeff Thomas score 26 and the potential Sun Belt Player of the Year D’Marcus Simonds score 21, Hunter and his Panthers will make a cross-country trip on Friday to play at Montana, a team that finished 26-8 last season.

“We have to do that because we’re not going to get the Georgias and Georgia Techs to come in here and play. It’s just not going to happen,” Hunter said.

The struggle for most quality non-major teams is finding quality teams to play on their home court. So, locking up series against like-minded programs continues to be the norm for teams like Georgia State and East Tennessee State.

It’s the nature of their business. And why not?

“It’s not going to cost us a chance to play in the NCAA tournament by coming here and playing,” Forbes said. “It’s only going to make us better.”