Mid-Majors Make Their Mark on NCAA Tournament

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The Sweet Sixteen round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament is here. The tournament, so far, has been filled with upsets by schools such as George Mason, Bradley and Wichita State. Jonathan Ahl of member station WCBU reports.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

There are 16 teams left in the Men's NCAA basketball tournament. Among those still in contention are traditional powers like Duke, Connecticut, and UCLA. But also alive are some teams that experts said should not have made the tournament at all. Their performance is generating discussions about the future of college basketball.

Jonathan Ahl of member station WCBU in Peoria, Illinois reports.

JONATHAN AHL reporting:

Bradley University has been hosting a lot of rallies for its basketball team over the last week and a half. Hundreds of people are crammed into Robertson Memorial Field House, a building on campus made of surplus World War II airplane hangers. They're holding another rally to send the Bradley Braves off to their next game tonight in Oakland. Bradley was one of the last teams to receive bid to the tournament. Bradley fan Wes Reid(ph) is still hoarse from so much cheering.

Mr. WES REID (Bradley Basketball Team Fan): The Bradley Braves just played like champions. It's wonderful, they should have been there. Somebody has got to be the David and somebody has got to be the Goliath, and Bradley is going to be the David.

AHL: Bradley played the role of David, beating high-ranked teams Kansas and Pitt in the first two rounds. Also making the tournament and advancing to the round of 16 were George Mason and Wichita State, schools with lesser-known basketball programs.

Eric Brady is a sports reporter at USA Today. He says teams from smaller conferences have struggled to get into the tournament because big conference schools won't play them. So this year, teams from the Missouri Valley and other smaller conferences improve their lot by playing other good teams from mid-sized conferences. Brady says that was the difference in earning enough points in the NCAA formula that helps determine who makes the tournament.

Mr. ERIC BRADY (Sports Reporter, USA Today): Some of the people from the power conferences felt like they had sort of rigged the system a little bit. Well, it's the system that the power schools created, and my feeling is more power to the Missouri Valley for finding a way to get into the tournament.

AHL: Supporters of smaller conference schools say this year's tournament will be a wake-up call to big schools. But it's unlikely schools like Kentucky and North Carolina will start calling. Steve Lavin is a former coach at UCLA, and currently is an analyst for ESPN. He says, even with Bradley, Wichita State and George Mason going so far, big schools will not give them a look.

Mr. STEVE LAVIN (Analyst, ESPN): It's highly unlikely it will ever happen, unfortunately, at the power conference schools, because those athletic directors and administrators are basing their scheduling on a philosophy that's going to strictly deal with revenue streams and TV dollars coming into the university.

AHL: Lavin says it's still much more lucrative for big schools to beat up on patsies that will play them on their home court. While this year's tournament is generating a lot of discussion about parity, the surprise teams that are still in are trying to avoid the hype.

Bradley coach Jim Les says he doesn't care much about who is saying what about his team or his conference.

Mr. JIM LES (Basketball Coach, Bradley University): The opinions of others never filtered into our locker room. This team has tremendous confidence in itself, and a belief that they can continue to advance and move on, and that's really all that matters. All the other opinions are just that.

AHL: At least one of the underdog schools will be in the next round of the tournament, because Wichita State plays George Mason for one of the spots in the round of eight.

For NPR News, I'm Jonathan Ahl, in Peoria, Illinois.

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