Mid-major decline

The Baltimore Sun

Who knew that all those years that Leon Barmore was guiding the Louisiana Tech women's basketball team to Final Four appearances and national championships that he was leading a mid-major?

Barmore, a 2003 inductee to the Basketball Hall of Fame, always figured the Lady Techsters, who won two NCAA championships, made five title-game appearances and went to nine Final Fours during his 20-year tenure, were just as major as the Texas, Tennessee and LSU teams they were playing and beating.

"I don't even know where these words originate, mid-major and major and all that," said Barmore, who retired in 2002 with an .869 winning percentage. "It must be things like enrollments and budgets and money. I guess you would consider Louisiana Tech a mid-major, certainly in most sports."

While George Mason's run to the national semifinals - and the plight of mid-major schools and conferences - was all the rage in men's basketball last season, the situation on the women's side is quite the opposite.

Mid-major schools such as Louisiana Tech, Old Dominion, Long Beach State, Western Kentucky and Missouri State (then Southwest Missouri State), which held their own in the first two decades that the NCAA held a Final Four, have largely fallen by the wayside in the past five years.

Since 2001, when Missouri State rode the hot shooting of guard Jackie Stiles, the all-time leading women's scorer, to the Final Four, all 20 of the national semifinal slots have been filled by schools from the Bowl Championship Series conferences (Atlantic Coast, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pacific-10 and Southeastern).

Worse yet, the power leagues have gobbled all but 12 of the 99 at-large bids available in the past three tournaments. Only three non-BCS conference schools (Utah last year, Liberty in 2005 and UC-Santa Barbara in 2004) have advanced to the Sweet 16 the past three years.

The surprises in women's basketball in recent seasons have come not from schools from mid-major conferences making their way through the field, but rather from previously unheralded schools from power leagues winning it all.

"I have a really hard time believing that we have a George Mason out there," television and radio analyst Debbie Antonelli said. "Those are selected instances where [Louisiana] Tech and Old Dominion have been traditionally strong women's basketball programs, even stronger than a lot of the power conferences early on.

"With Baylor winning it two years ago and Maryland winning it last year, those are two power leagues, teams that are very deserving of it and very good. They got on a run. But I don't see, like a Bowling Green out of the Mid-American Conference, who dominated their league last year, won 28 games last year and has everybody back and is receiving votes in the Top 25, I don't see them as a Final Four contending team."

Once upon a time, Old Dominion, which won the 1985 title in a Final Four field that included Georgia, Western Kentucky and Louisiana-Monroe, and Louisiana Tech were just as viable nationally as Tennessee, Texas and Southern California.

"Back at the time, we had established a tremendous tradition, because the university and the athletics department made a real commitment to women's basketball," said Rutgers assistant coach Marianne Stanley, who coached Old Dominion to the 1985 title. "We were out front. Truth be told, we were way out in front of all the quote-unquote I-A football schools. We were doing what they weren't willing to do at that time, so we got a jump-start and we built a tradition, and they've continued that tradition."

Though the Lady Techsters have dominated the Western Athletic Conference, and the Lady Monarchs have a 15-year stranglehold on the Colonial Athletic Association title, most high school All-Americans have passed up smaller schools.

"What happens is conference affiliation becomes a very big player in where kids choose to go," Virginia coach Debbie Ryan said. "Obviously, you want to go where you're going to be on television the most. That must have some impact on some of the mid-majors being able to recruit at the highest level. That's one of the big things."

The bigger schools have been able to kick up their recruiting efforts and improve their facilities because their athletic administrations, no doubt carrying the fear of Title IX reprisals, poured money into their women's basketball programs and left schools like Louisiana Tech, which last went to the Final Four in 1999, and Old Dominion, which reached the national semifinals last in 1997, behind.

As a result, exceptionally talented players who might have escaped the notice of the big schools are now identified early and often by power schools.

"Now, if a kid's any good, AAU coaches know about them when they're about 7 years old and they get them out into the national spotlight," Duke coach Gail Goestenkors said. "By the time they're 13, everybody in the country has seen them. For some mid-majors, you can't hide kids anymore. If they're a good player, Tennessee's going to know about them, Connecticut, Duke, we're all going to know about those players, so you can't sneak them in anymore."

But, while Louisiana Tech has been ousted from the tournament's first round in two of the past three seasons, and Old Dominion has been unable to win a tournament game since 2002, Barmore is optimistic that the two schools can bounce back.

"I think Louisiana Tech and Old Dominion can hang in there," Barmore said. "Will they go to the Final Four every year? No, but look around. There are not that many Division I schools that are doing it either. The talent base is spread out more. More teams are involved. To some degree, I would like to think that helps us a little bit, instead of saying we can't do it, because I believe Louisiana Tech can still do it. Maybe I'm prejudiced or maybe I'm blind to the fact and hoping we can."

milton.kent@baltsun.com

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