BYU And The Mid-Major Hype Cycle

Today's Sports Illustrated asks the question: Are the BYU Cougars America's Team? (They also have an awesome cover photo, by Robert Beck.) The answer is no, BYU's not America's Team, because that phrase really has no meaning beyond a marketing slogan formulated more than 30 years ago. But it speaks to the myth of the underdog, a mantle BYU and teams like them will happily cling to.

So this year it's BYU that's the plucky "small" school making a deep run. (Not that they're some small-time program; they've been in the tournament more often than not the past 10 years, though not as a 3-seed since 1980.) They've got the polarizing Jimmer Fredette, folk hero. They've got the omnipresent, amorphous cloak of ethics. But major opinion-shapers are moving past that to focus on the keenest archetype of college basketball: the mid-major standard-bearer.

You know who BYU is? An old chestnut. They're just the latest in the line of unheralded teams making a run for a few years in a row. They're Gonzaga. And now look at Gonzaga — no longer a Cinderella, they just come out of their weak little conference every year and get smoked. Through the prism of elite college basketball, Gonzaga sucks.

And you know all these AQ overachievers want to be considered top-level. They'll never be, as long as they stay wallowing in their mediocre conferences. Over in football, BYU and TCU have been playing the same roles as the outsiders, never quite joining the big boys at the dinner table. But at least TCU is putting their money where their mouth is, and joining a BCS conference. Call me when Gonzaga joins the Pac-10.

There's always a few teams at any given time that fit the mold, and BYU's not alone. Them, George Mason, maybe SDSU, definitely Butler (and make no mistake: if Gordon Hayward's last second heave had gone in last year, it would have been the greatest moment in sports history). They'll continue to piddle on, occasionally going to the later rounds, but never winning the whole thing. That's reserved for the true top-level basketball programs, and has been for many many years. So while a win for BYU or Butler tonight would be huge, and huge fun, that mid-major bandwagon always seems to crash sooner or later.