I tend to agree with ESPN's Eamon Brennan that there is certainly an increasingly blurred line between the haves and the have-nots (in college basketball much more so than football); I also disagree that "mid-major" is any sort of as-useless-as-the-day-it-was-first-uttered cliché that is no longer applicable to the sport.
I think that, despite being pivotal to the name of certain SBN sites, it is still a very useful tool. It is necessary to label the "major" programs like those in the SEC or Big 10 who bring in revenue by the truckload, as well as the monetary bottom feeders that tend to occupy conferences like the SWAC or MEAC.
However, there is certainly a large "middle" ground of teams that are neither "major" nor "minor" players, either with regard to competitive funding or competitive play. I think it is extremely apt to refer to this core of programs as the "mid-majority" (thank you, Kyle Whelliston).
That said, it is inevitable that in every single conference, the cream rises to the top and winds up in the NCAA tournament. For mid-major conferences, there are fewer top-notch programs, which all-in-all tends to narrow the margin of error even for elite mid-major programs like Wichita State, let alone slightly lesser lights such as Toledo. When your conference as a whole is weaker, any one loss can put a much bigger dent in your armor.
I don't know that it is necessarily appropriate to refer to the teams who make it into the tournament from these lower conferences as "Cinderella" - I don't care what the quality of your team or conference is, you don't win 20+ games by accident. Especially if you make the tournament as a conference champion, at the very least you've been the best team in your conference for a week and have thus earned your invitation to the dance just like every other "auto-bid" princess coming through the doors.
That said, the guys at Mid-Major Madness are doing a Cinderella Watch in the run-up to the NCAA Tournament, and one of the keys of any watch is knowing just what to look for. So what is it that makes Cinderella beautiful? What makes a team that is pegged for upset-laced stardom when springtime rolls around? And which teams can survive the #MACtion long enough to get a shot at a glass slipper?
The Right Dress
Or, in this case, a good dose of strength of schedule. When it comes to this wardrobe staple, Eastern Michigan has the prettiest dress of the crowd. They got a big boost from playing three road games against ranked opponents in the form of Duke, Syracuse and Kentucky. It's too bad the wheels have fallen off lately, since they're the only MAC squad with a strength of schedule in the Top 100 nationally.
Toledo also boosted themselves in this category with what now appears to be a not only diverse, but strong non-conference schedule whose ranking may keep improving. This is also where Akron is paying the price for five non-conference games against opponents whose RPI is currently over 200.
The Perfect Tiara
Nothing tops off some sequined, well-fitted evening-wear like the right crown. In this instance, we're talking about big wins. There aren't huge ones, as the two teams I just mentioned plus Ohio and Akron went a combined 0-8 against the current RPI Top 25, but go a little further and you'll find some nice sterling silver to make that outfit pop.
Ohio is the leader in this category, having gone 4-0 against teams between 26 and 100 in the RPI, and would have a fifth win in that category if Akron were just a touch higher. The rest of this crowd has gone 5-6 against similar opposition, though it's fair to point out that a chunk of that has been against each other.
Avoiding the Toll of Midnight
Everyone knows that once midnight rolls around, if it's just a fairytale you'll find yourself sitting in a pile of pumpkin goo that used to be a chariot of gold carrying you to the basketball promised land. The easiest way to cause the clock to strike midnight prematurely and permanently is to lose to an opponent outside the RPI Top 150.
This is one area of relative equality for our competitors. The MAC currently has five teams ranked between 150 and 200 in the RPI, and every team but Toledo has lost to one of them. EMU lost to Buffalo (158), then Ohio lost to Bowling Green (163). Then, on the same night, Akron lost to Kent State (199), and the Eagles dropped another one to Miami (164).
So who will get to go dancing? The invitation list will be short, as these teams' games against each other are their only remaining quality opponents.
Eastern Michigan is probably the most dangerous - and also unlikely to make it, now that last night's close but ugly loss to Akron means four losses in their last five. Akron themselves got a slight boost from that win, but they only have one other game against a current RPI Top 100 team, which are the kind of wins you need to make up the ground they are facing.
Ohio's brought themselves back into the picture with their win against Toledo, then shoved themselves right back down the ladder with last night's domination by Western Michigan. Toledo got back on track against Bowling Green and now must avoid tripping up against Ball State prior to facing Ohio and EMU, so that they can run the table and look good heading into the conference tournament.
When all is said and done, this is very likely a one-bid league. Perhaps there is a chance that if Toledo and one other of these teams (or even WMU) can win out to end the regular season, and then played each other in the conference tournament championship, that a second team could sneak in. But the overall conference strength is too low for there to be a good chance of multiple slippers being donned this postseason in the MAC.
*all RPI numbers per ESPN's most recent listings at time of writing.