Saturday, December 4, 2021

Mid-major teams hang together, make impact

April 2, 2002

A Saluki is defined as an ancient breed of dog with a keen sense of vision used in hunting.

A Southern Illinois Saluki is an ancient breed of basketball player, using its maturity and experience in the NCAA Tournament to knock off some of the biggest names in college coaching.

The sixth-seeded Texas Tech Red Raiders and head coach Bobby Knight fell prey to the mighty Salukis in the first round of the tournament. Then, head coach Jim Harrick and his Georgia Bulldogs’ bark was reduced to a whimper by the Salukis in the second round.

But these weren’t upset wins. The Salukis, considered a mid-level Division I team, sunk their teeth into 28 opponents this year under head coach Bruce Weber, including the national runner-up Indiana Hoosiers.

Weber said his players’ experience in previous battles set the stage for their March run.

“Our guys are a great example of a group that’s hung together for three or four years,” he said. “They can perform as a pretty good unit and can maybe beat teams with better individuals.”

Spartan freshman guard Chris Hill said playing against an experienced team makes him think about what it’d be like to be in that kind of a situation.

“I can see if you stay with the same group of players and coaches for three or four years, there’s going to be a bond there that will never be broken,” he said.

Teams loaded with the better individuals often are unable to form that bond and come from the big six conferences - Big Ten, Pac-10, ACC, SEC, Big 12 and Big East. And the better individuals no longer are guaranteed to be in school for all four years.

Weber said many major schools hesitate playing a strong mid-major, because if the major wins, it’s nothing remarkable because they’re supposed to. If the major loses to a mid-major, it can be a crippling blow to a national ranking.

And teams from conferences such as the Missouri Valley Conference, SIU’s league, the Mid-Atlantic Conference and the West Coast Conference are feasting on power conference schools in March, when mid-majors can get their crack at one or two of them.

“The higher major schools are playing the freshman and sophomore superstar players and junior and senior role players,” MSU associate head coach Brian Gregory said. “I think what ends up happening now is the mid-major schools are playing juniors and seniors because those guys aren’t leaving early.

“Over a 40 minute stretch that stuff can have a huge impact.”

And the impact is felt most during tournament time.

Kent State, the No. 10 seed, defeated the seventh, second and third seeds in the South region en route to the school’s first Elite Eight berth. Ex-MSU assistant coach Stan Heath was at the helm for the Golden Flashes run and parlayed the tournament success into the head coaching job at Arkansas.

Creighton, a No. 12 seed, upset fifth-seeded Florida, and Gonzaga had sewn together three-straight Sweet 16 appearances as underdogs before getting upset by another mid-major this year in No. 11 seed Wyoming.

If these so-called mid-majors get worse players than the teams they’re beating, how are they winning?

“The top programs at the mid-major level are good teams, and throughout the history of the tournament they’ve had great runs,” Gregory said. “I just think you’ll start to see that a lot more because of experience and everything else that goes into it.”

Weber credited added strength, toughness and, most importantly, maturity for the Salukis’ not-so-improbable run to the Sweet 16.

It’s maturity that allowed his team’s veterans to put their NBA aspirations behind, for a chance to leave a legacy at their schools and make a run in the NCAA Tournament.

“When they come in as freshmen and sophomores - and I don’t care where you are at - the kids are more into themselves,” Weber said. “Once they reach their junior and senior years, the kids realize the team is the more important thing.

“They stayed three, four or five years, and now the team’s goals mean more to them than as a freshman.”

Dan Woike can be reached at woikedan@msu.edu.

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