ESPN gives basketball unbeatens a major headache

Sports Illustrated put this guy on the cover, only to find out in 2015 that ESPN considered his team’s accomplishment something less than major.
Sports Illustrated put this guy on the cover, only to find out in 2015 that ESPN considered his team’s accomplishment something less than major. Courtesy of Sports Illustrated

Kentucky is unbeaten, like a few others in recent memory.

ESPN’s SportsCenter Twitter account marked that impressive accomplishment with a Tweet reading “Kentucky became the 1st major conference team to go undefeated in the regular season since Indiana in 1975-76.”

Somewhere in Indiana, I imagine Bob Heaton thinking “Wait a minute ...”

That message seems to short-change the accomplishments of 1979 Indiana State, 1991 UNLV, 2004 Saint Joseph’s and — you might remember — 2014 Wichita State.

What to do, what to do.

Why respond to such an inconsequential slight?

Why let them get away with it?

Because of my respect for Larry Bird, Larry Johnson, Jameer Nelson and Cleanthony Early, I’m going to give in to the silliness and respond, ironically, using my ESPN College Basketball Encyclopedia as a helpful reference.

I understand ESPN is an easy target because it is everywhere and can’t please everybody. It does many things wonderfully. ESPN is big organization and because one person wrote those words on Twitter doesn’t mean all ESPN employees are knuckle-heads bent on advancing a nefarious power-conference agenda.

Only some of them.

That’s a joke.

I understand some conferences are stronger than others and those conferences are easy to figure out. I’m not here to sell the MVC as better than the SEC or Big 12. The 1991 Big West, much as I enjoyed the Thunderdome at Cal-Santa Barbara, isn’t as good as the ACC.

However, this kind of parsing and categorizing seems unnecessary, revisionist, inaccurate and confusing to viewers and readers. A respect for college basketball history demands that we not allow a Twitter account at ESPN to decide when and how to rewrite history.

I do not remember ESPN telling you to watch last season’s Missouri State-Wichita State finale on its flagship network with the warning that it was a matchup of non-major conference teams. The Shockers, last season, were listed with Saint Joseph’s, UNLV and Indiana — when it suited ESPN’s version of the story.

On Sunday, apparently, the list changed, at least in the mind of somebody with a Twitter password at ESPN.

This is the danger with revising history and in this case (as well as others) somebody at ESPN is more interested in hyping history than accurately reflecting it. The definition of “major” conference is hard to pin down, evolving and can be tied to football, for reasons that are understandable and unfair.

It would take a cold-hearted or obtuse person to look at the Atlantic 10 Conference in 2004 and judge it something less than “major.”

It sent four of its 12 teams to the NCAA Tournament. Saint Joseph’s defeated Liberty, Texas Tech and Wake Forest before losing 64-62 to Oklahoma State. Xavier, after finishing third in its A-10 division, defeated Louisville, Mississippi State and Texas before losing 66-63 to Duke.

If that’s not a “major” performance, the definition of major is so narrow and arbitrary it’s not helpful.

In 1979, the NCAA awarded byes to 16 conferences with the best tournament record over the previous five tournaments.

The MVC earned one of those byes, and it went to Indiana State.

New Mexico State earned an at-large bid, giving the MVC the same number of tournament teams as the ACC, SEC, Big 10, Pac 10, Metro, PCAA, SWC, WCAC, Sun Belt and more than the Big 8 and Eastern 8.

In 1979, the NCAA chose from 24 conferences and a large group of independents to fill the 40-team field. Conferences were allowed two teams into the field.

That was a world in which South Alabama, Pepperdine, New Mexico State and Utah State earned at-large bids and Kansas, Virginia, Maryland Purdue and Indiana did not despite winning 18 or more games. That world did not last long.

In 1979, the MVC fit the definition of a worthwhile NCAA conference and it certainly had several strong seasons earlier in the 1970s and (after dramatic membership changes) in the 1980s. There was skepticism of Indiana State’s schedule, which lessened after it defeated Virginia Tech, Big 8 champion Oklahoma 93-72, Arkansas and DePaul before losing to Michigan State. New Mexico State lost to Weber State in overtime.

The 2014 MVC slumped badly, with no other NCAA candidate beyond WSU and Indiana State’s weak NIT performance. The 1991 Big West produced an at-large team (New Mexico State).

Was the 2014 MVC strong? No.

Was it a major conference? Over its recent history, the MVC ranks in the top 10 of the 33 NCAA Division I conferences in RPI, attendance and conference tournament attendance. It regularly produces at-large quality teams and teams that win NCAA Tournament games. It regularly produces teams capable of defeating teams from higher-profile conferences.

It is not as powerful as those conferences. There are significant differences in budgets and popularity. The MVC has bad seasons and good seasons. Like many conferences, on its best days it fits most definitions of major and it might look less so on others.

If we’re really going to retroactively categorize college basketball accomplishments, let’s go back and look at the 1950s and 1960s when SEC rosters were segregated, most didn’t test themselves with national schedules, didn’t play in the NIT and sometimes (in the case of Mississippi State) turned down bids in the NCAA Tournament because of a policy not to play schools with blacks on their rosters.

How major does that sound?

Since there is no real definition of major, it seems wise to define it generously enough to include teams such as 1979 Indiana State, 1991 UNLV, 2004 Saint Joseph’s and 2014 Wichita State, teams that proved their worth in numerous ways and came from conferences with track records of accomplishments.

Limiting the label of “major” to a few conferences ignores the history and reality of college basketball. Even if you’re just one person with a Twitter password in Bristol, Conn., you’re better off understanding that.