ESPN does some things right. A few years ago, in an effort to get those non-power conference schools on TV, ESPN set aside a weekend to match up the top schools from those "mid-major" conferences on their network in an effort to get them more exposure. The experiment has been running for 10 years now and it is safe to say — thanks to Butler and to VCU making the Final Four — that it is working.
Mid-majors have made the leap for sure.
That can be even more clearly seen in the NBA today. Damian Lillard of Weber State is the front-runner for Rookie of the Year. Kenneth Faried of Morehead State was the MVP of the BBVA Rising Stars Game.
"I’m loving what [Damian Lillard is] doing," said Magic center Kyle O'Quinn, a center at tiny Norfolk State which upset Missouri in last year's NCAA Tournament, back in mid-December. "He’s a mid-major school. Maybe didn’t get enough national attention as other guys. But he’s showing that there is talent everywhere. You handle your business on the court and you should be rewarded for it. I’m happy for him."
Lillard is averaging 18.3 points per game and 6.5 assists per game for the Blazers and is the front runner for NBA Rookie of the Year. And he went out and won the Taco Bell Skills Challenge on All-Star Saturday night. Faried has become a fixture among fans for his never-ending hustle and grit. That is how he made a name for himself as the nation's top rebounder at Morehead State.
Then you take a look at the roster for this year's BBVA Rising Stars Challenge at All-Star Weekend. Faried, Lillard and Kawhi Leonard all came from non-BCS conference schools. Then the league added St. Bonaventure's Andrew Nicholson to the roster, making four of these mid-majors playing in Houston in the league's showcase of its best young players.
NBA talent clearly knows no conference limits or attention-grabbing spotlight. For one week though these players will get that and that is a huge thing for some of the players on these teams hoping to make NBA rosters.
That would include players like Creighton's scoring small forward Doug McDermott or point guard Nate Wolters of South Dakota State or Murray State guard Isaiah Canaan (who will go up against Wolters head-to-head this weekend) or Detroit guard Ray McCallum.
None of these players are likely first round picks according to DraftExpress or NBADraft.net. The games on ESPN's air this weekend between mid-major teams likely has more second round and summer league selections than guys that will last in the NBA.
"The good things that mid-majors are doing," O'Quinn said, "we’re reaping the benefits now. They’re doing things like [BracketBusters] and checking out mid-major talent. Everybody that came from a mid-major is just helping the cause."
This year's draft class may not have the bigger names that previous ones did. Lehigh's C.J. McCollum was a first round and potential lottery prospect until he was knocked out of his senior year by a broken foot. However, the league is clearly seeing that there is talent all around the college basketball nation.
Some of them may very well be on ESPN this weekend.