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August 2, 2013
By Anthony J. Fredella
NEW YORK, New York - Over the last decade the term "mid-major" has been associated with college basketball programs that don't play in the mainstream conferences, the ACC, the Big Ten, the Big 12, the Pac-12, Conference USA or the SEC. It's a term that's generally been used to describe the "smaller" programs that didn't have the top notch talent. The programs that couldn't land, or even recruit, the McDonald's All Americans. It was a term to describe the teams that played in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, but no further. The teams that helped the "big boys" fill up their non-conference schedules. You know, the cupcakes. But over the last ten years or so, that has changed, dramatically. Now seeing Gonzaga make an NCAA Tournament run isn't a surprise, it's expected. This past season they were the #1 Seed in the West Region. The Butler Bulldogs went to back-to-back NCAA title games in 2010 & 2011. It's not really a shock seeing VCU or Wichita State in the Final Four anymore. Mid-major schools can compete now on the national level. But one thing still hasn't changed, and that's recruiting. The mid-major programs, those not in the conferences listed above (except for maybe UNLV), still haven't been able to sign the top blue chip talent year in and year out. But that doesn't necessarily mean that they haven't been able to land some of the best basketball players in the world. Let me explain.
While there's no denying that Duke, Kentucky, UNC, Kansas and Florida are well represented in the NBA, still some of the League's best players have come from lesser known, "mid-major" schools like Louisiana Tech, IUPUI and Davidson. For example, a couple of months ago the World Champion Miami Heat found themselves in a battle for the Eastern Conference with the Indiana Pacers, a team led by budding superstars Paul George and George Hill. Neither of them played in the ACC. Or the SEC. Or even the PAC-12. No Rupp Arena for those guys. Nope. Instead, Paul George played at Fresno State and Hill came out of IUPUI. Not exactly hoop hotbeads. And while Kansas and Duke were not competing for Paul George's services coming out of high school, most teams in the League would kill for him to be on their roster right now. Right? Right.
Also last season, point guard phenom Damian Lillard took the NBA rookies by storm when he averaged 19 ppg, 6.5 apg and 3.1 rpg, garnering him the unanimous selection as the League's Rookie of the Year. And where did he come from? Weber State. And if you ask most scouts around the League now, they'll probably mention Lillard's name when discussing the top ten playmakers currently in the NBA. Who would have thought that back in 2008 when Lillard was only mildly recruited by the big boys, before ultimately ending up in Ogden, Utah?
How about Stephen Curry? Name an NBA GM that wouldn't want Steph Curry in their lineup? Stop thinking, you won't find one. But back in 2006, when Curry was lighting up high school gyms, Mike Kryzweyski, Bill Self and Roy Williams were nowhere to be found. Talk about a miss. And Curry made those big schools pay, taking his Davidson squad into the advanced rounds of the NCAA Tourney as a sophomore and as a junior.
But there's a bright lining to all this overlooked talent. Missing out on the recruitment of Steph Curry probably helped his brother, also not heavily recruited out of high school, transfer from Liberty to Duke after his freshman year. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me, right?
And the list doesn't end with just those players mentioned above. There are a host of budding stars in the NBA right now that have come from "mid-major" colleges:
Paul George - Fresno State
Paul Millsap - Louisiana Tech
George Hill - IUPUI
Kenneth Faried - Morehead State
JaVale McGee - Nevada
Stephen Curry - Davidson
Jeremy Lin - Harvard
Gordon Hayward - Butler
JJ Barea - Northeastern
Jason Thompson - Rider
Not too shabby, right? And the trickle down effect that these players have had on NBA scouting now has been unprecedented. No longer are the top scouts just evaluating the talent at the Indianas, the Michigan States, the UCLA's and the Syracuses. No sir. You now see team representatives at South Dakota St. and Lehigh games. They have to. They can't afford to let another Paul George or Damian Lillard get past them. In fact, this past June's NBA Draft saw NBA fracnhises use their valuable draft selections on seven, that's right seven, players from mid-major schools: CJ McCollum (Lehigh), Isaiah Canaan (Murray State), Nate Wolters (South Dakota St.), Ray McCallum (Detroit), Mike Muscala (Bucknell), James Ennis (Long Beach State), and Tony Mitchell (North Texas). When was the last time two players were drafted in the same NBA Draft out of the Patriot League? Yea, I don't know either.
The truth of the matter is this, the successes that Steph Curry and Paul George and Kenneth Faried are now having are impacting, in a major sense, the way basketball is evaluated around the world. No longer can we just rely on the recruiting services to rank these players as 14 or 17 year old's and then just disregard the rest. I mean we can, but we might miss out on someone special. Basketball is an incredible sport that encompasses athleticism, determination, grace, size and toughness. The great ones possess each of those qualities. But sometimes it takes a little longer for a player to develop some of those characteristics. It's good to see that we're now keeping an eye out.
THE MID-MAJOR EFFECT