Nate: Today we’re talking about the book, “Cinderella: Inside the Rise of Mid-Major College Basketball”, by Michael Litos. It follows the Colonial Athletic Association during the 2005-06 basketball season, which included George Mason’s improbable run to the Final Four. This book really hit home for me because I received my Bachelor’s Degree from a mid-major school, Indiana State, and a lot of the struggles the teams in Litos’s book deal with are familiar to me as someone who follows my former school. Recruiting, scheduling, and retaining good young coaches are all things mid-major schools have trouble doing.
Dave: I can definitely see that. Even though this book is about the Colonial Athletic Association, the situations described in it could easily apply to the Missouri Valley Conference or the Horizon, or any other mid-major conference. I think it’s interesting that the CAA had success in the NCAA Tournament even before George Mason’s run, yet it continues to struggle to maintain that success. You look at scheduling; teams are always told they need to play a tough schedule, but if you’re a mid-major and you load up on high RPI teams, you may end up losing several of those and not having a good enough record to get into the NCAA Tournament.
Nate: And as a mid-major, if you play teams from power conferences, you’ll almost always be playing in their buildings because those power teams have no reason to agree to play on the road. They have nothing to gain by playing a mid-major. They’re supposed to win those games, and if they lose it’s considered a bad loss.
Dave: Exactly. As an example, you’ll never see KU or K-State go play Wichita St. in Wichita. They might play them at the Sprint Center, in a neutral site game, but there’s no way they’d ever go and play in their building because there would be way too much to lose.
Nate: I have to say I enjoyed reading about the run of George Mason to the Final Four, and just reliving that experience again. It was such a wild thing when it happened because no mid-major school had made it to the Final Four since the tournament expanded to 64 teams.
Dave: And their run to the Final Four was pretty amazing. To beat Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State, and then mighty UConn, who many people thought was the best team in the country, was quite a feat. They certainly didn’t sneak in.
Dave: But somehow they did. How about the way their breakthrough to the Final Four has helped mid-majors a bit. ESPN now has their Bracket Busters days in February which pits several mid-major teams against each other and gets them some national exposure.
Nate: It’s important because many of those teams will never be seen on national television otherwise. It helps with recruiting, but also in gaining notoriety not only in the public eye, but in the eyes of the media.
Dave: I thought it was refreshing to read about some of these smaller teams and their coaches. They’re not the media darlings like Rick Pitino or John Calipari, they’re just plugging away, doing their jobs. Some of the coaches in these conferences are young guys trying to make a name for themselves, but some are old stand bys, like Jim Larranaga at George Mason, who’s been in the profession forever, and is just happy to be at George Mason year in and year out.
Nate: And like you said, some of the coaches are young guys who are hoping for a way to break through to the next level of coaching. In Litos’s book, Jeff Capel is the coach at Virginia Commonwealth, but now has moved on to Oklahoma. He was replaced by Anthony Grant, who has since moved on to Alabama. It seems to be a never ending cycle, and one of the reasons these teams have a difficult time remaining successful. When you reach a level of success, unless you have a content, veteran coach like Jim Larranaga, your coach will leave for greener pastures and you’ll have to start over.
Dave: You also learn about the personalities of the teams in the CAA in Litos’s book, as well as the personalities of the fans. And I think that’s part of what makes these mid-major teams sometimes so compelling to watch and root for. I really enjoy sitting down and watching the Bracket Busters event on ESPN, because you get to see some of these teams play. The players and the fans are so passionate. Most of the time they’re teams that play fundamentally sound basketball, and many times they are loaded with experienced guys who play well together.
Nate: And that experience helped George Mason in their run to the Final Four in 2006. The three leading scorers on their team were seniors. We’ve seen that many times with mid-major teams who make runs deep into the NCAA Tournament. A few years ago when Davidson made their run to the Elite Eight, they were a team loaded with seniors as well.
Dave: Another big controversy in 2006, when George Mason made their run to the Final Four was the number of mid-major teams that got at-large bids. I remember, and Litos talks about it a bit in the book, Jim Nantz and Billy Packer ripping in to the selection committee for doing that, and how there were several teams from power conferences who should have gotten bids over a team like George Mason.
Nate: George Mason certainly proved them wrong. It comes down to the age old controversy of taking a middle of the pack team from a major conference, who barely has a .500 record in conference, or a mid-major team who went 14-4 in their conference and might have a big win or two against teams from a power conference. Who is more deserving? I tend to side with the smaller teams. In my opinion the quality of play on those teams is often times better, and as we’ve seen in the past, those teams have every capability of winning in the NCAA Tournament. So what would you say about Litos’s book to someone who might be interested in reading it.
Dave: I think it would be a great read for any college basketball fan. And we know there are a lot of college basketball fans in this area. It gives a detailed look at the realities faced by mid-major schools and conferences, and what they have to go through to compete at a high level.
Nate: I agree. If you’re a fan of KU, K-State, or any other school in a power conference and you don’t have a feel for what it’s truly like to be a mid-major school, I think it would be a great read.