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Life on NCAA tourney bubble getting tougher for the little guys: 'The opportunity is disappearing'

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. – The last two years in the month of March, this folksy Tennessee town emerged as an unlikely beacon of hoops hope. The allure of the NCAA tournament each March comes with the disparate nature of its remote epicenters, from Santa Clara to Siena, Weber State to Coppin State and Miami (Ohio) to Mercer.

Back-to-back upsets of No. 2 Michigan State in 2016 and No. 5 Minnesota in 2017 ushered the Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee State – and Murfreesboro – to America’s sporting forefront. Even the cast was perfect, right down to the appropriately named star guard – Giddy Potts – to set the celebratory tenor.

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This March, optimism has taken a precipitous dive in Murfreesboro, twinning with a larger trend outside of college basketball’s top conferences. The NCAA tournament committee has felt more like a cartel the past three seasons, as just three at-large teams have been selected for the NCAA tournament from outside the top seven conferences – ACC, AAC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC – in each of the last three seasons. The nine at-large bids from smaller leagues over the past three years is a stark comparison to the 28 at-large bids for teams outside the top leagues in a three-year span from 2012 to 2014.

“The beauty of the tournament is always the upsets,” Middle Tennessee State athletic director Chris Massaro told Yahoo Sports Tuesday night. “The way the trend is going, in the long run it’s going to hurt the NCAA tournament and college basketball.”

Middle Tennessee senior Nick King couldn’t bring himself to move after Middle Tennessee’s NCAA tournament snub. (AP)

Middle Tennessee blew out Vermont, 91-64, in the first round of the NIT here on Tuesday, the only antidote to a few days around Murfreesboro that played out like a country music refrain – The NCAA tournament dumped us, our coach is (likely) leaving and even the NIT gave a kick while we were down.

Middle Tennessee didn’t just get snubbed by the NCAA tournament committee. It appears it was barely even considered, as it ended up as a No. 3 seed in the NIT.  With a proven pedigree, 24-7 record, 12 road victories and a challenging out-of-conference slate, Middle Tennessee State should have been strongly considered for the NCAA tournament field.

But perhaps the most telling part of Middle Tennessee’s fate is that no one was really surprised by their exclusion, as the NCAA tournament shunning teams from outside power conferences has gone from a blip to a trend to a full-blown expectation. “The opportunity is disappearing,” Massaro said.

For teams outside of basketball’s power conferences, the numbers are chilling. Both Rhode Island and Nevada, the top seeds in the Atlantic 10 and Mountain West tournament, got upset in their league tournaments to pad the number to three. St. Bonaventure got the other at-large and was shipped to Dayton for the First Four, which shows we’re likely closer to full exclusion than more inclusion.

“There’s clearly been a shift of some kind,” said Patrick Stevens, a contributor to the Washington Post who has meticulously tracked bracket metrics closely for well over a decade. “It’s partially a consolidation of leagues, but partially the committee’s evaluation process has changed to some extent. Not to oversimply things, but it’s come down to quantity of high-end victories.”

Trend or chance? NCAA selection committee has not been favoring smaller conference schools over the past three years. ( Chart compiled by Patrick Stevens) 

Consolidation is a point that can’t be overlooked in this trend. Stevens jokes that a super-sized conference could be formed by the schools that have jumped into power leagues since 2004 – Louisville, Marquette, Cincinnati, Xavier, Creighton, Butler, Utah, TCU, Wichita State, Houston, Tulsa, Memphis, Temple and SMU. (The Atlantic 10 has added VCU, Davidson and George Mason, who’ve all made at least an Elite Eight in the past two decades.)

But as the leagues left behind have regenerated and mutated, there’s been a distinct lowering of access that’s come with their new realities.

“There’s no compassion for our level,” MTSU coach Kermit Davis told Yahoo Sports.

Take a league like the Colonial Athletic Association, which saw VCU and George Mason both go to the Final Four in the 2000s. Those schools are gone, and the league’s second-place team, Northeastern, couldn’t even land an NIT bid this year. “We’re all concerned about the big picture,” CAA commissioner Joe D’Antonio said. “It’s getting harder and harder to understand what you need to do to crack the code at the level we’re at.”

Scheduling for mid-majors will only become more difficult, as the Big Ten (next year) and ACC (2019) have expanded 20-game conference schedules set. (The Pac-12 and SEC are considering it.) That would mean even less opportunity to hoard so-called Quadrant 1 wins. “It doesn’t seem to matter if you get those five high-end victories in six tries or 16 tries,” Stevens said. “If the priorities are going to be quantity of high-end victories, then the deck is stacked at that point.”

The most fitting portrait of this March came from Middle Tennessee State star Nick King, who stayed frozen in disbelief for more than an hour after Middle’s Selection Sunday snub. King’s statue pose is fitting of the place where mid-majors fit in today’s NCAA hierarchy, locked in place with little room for advancement. That’s why he took some joy in thumping Vermont so badly on Tuesday. “We’ve got to hold it down,” King said, “for all the mid-majors out there.”

Throughout MTSU’s blowout, the crowd chanted, “WE LOVE KERMIT,” intermittently at Davis. It’s the overwhelming expectation that Davis will leave Middle Tennessee for Ole Miss in the upcoming days or weeks, a deserved opportunity for a bigger stage and salary. The hugs he gave to friends and fans as he walked through the Murphy Center felt more likely embraces of goodbye than congratulations. No one denied that Davis was leaving on Tuesday. “It’s a hard decision,” Davis told Yahoo Sports. “I’m from Mississippi. My daughter, my dad, my mother, my brother and my sister live in Mississippi. I’ve grown up in that state.”

And the opportunity will yield more opportunity. As the NCAA tournament committee has evolved, the lesson is clear: They won’t give you a chance to beat them, so you might as well join them. “My wife and I have been here 16 years,” Davis said. “We love Murfreesboro and Middle. But sometimes maybe there’s an opportunity like a Power Five opportunity. And, like you said, you try and maybe not have to be perfect and finish seventh in your league. It does go in your decision.”

And the sad songs, here and elsewhere, appear destined to be stuck on repeat.

More NCAA tournament on Yahoo Sports:
March Madness bracket: Tournament field of 68 revealed
Printable bracket: Start making your picks
Selection Sunday winners and losers: Kentucky, Duke get rough roads
Five biggest tournament snubs
Everything you need to know before filling out a bracket
For beginners: Tips and tricks to filling out a bracket
Non-traditional ways to spice up your bracket pool