Western struggles to shrug off ‘mid-major’ label

Josh Buckman

With the start of the men’s basketball season around the corner, hopes are running high.

“I think it’s pretty extraordinary what’s going on right now with Western basketball,” Coach Dennis Felton said. “A few years ago we were nobody, and now we’re considered one of the best in the country.”

By most accounts, Felton’s sentiment should be accurate. Western is heavily favored to win its third straight Sun Belt Conference championship. They have SBC Preseason Player of the Year Chris Marcus. They’re ranked in the top 20 of most preseason polls.

But despite all that, the Toppers have not fully earned the respect of the media or the public. Some critics have said that while Western can make it to the NCAA Tournament, they cannot compete with the traditional powerhouses. They have been classified with the often-despised “mid-major” label.

“I have a great disdain for that term,” President Gary Ransdell said.

Ransdell’s sentiments are shared by coaches, players and fans of Hilltopper basketball. While it might seem to be a hopeless situation, steps are being taken to raise Western’s respectability.

The athletic department has put together a difficult schedule that includes preseason No. 1 Arizona on the road.

But several top-ranked schools have refused to schedule games against Western.

“The (top-ranked) programs have been circling the wagon in terms of not playing us, and certainly not playing on our home court,” Felton said. “You’ve got all these programs that are really good that don’t happen to be in a (top) conference who are struggling to have opportunities … to play at a higher level.”

Felton said a big reason certain coaches refuse to play Western is because they fear a loss to the Toppers could hurt their job security.

“Coaches get fired too fast. They get criticized unreasonably and they get fired,” Felton said. “I’m sure Tubby Smith caught hell for losing to Western Kentucky last year, when in reality it wasn’t a bad loss. We were a hell of a team. People don’t understand … They can swallow him losing a lot easier to Georgia than they can losing to Western Kentucky.”

Some people suggest that Western should move to a stronger conference. But according to Felton, winning is the key to gaining respect on the national level.

They’ll have to win games, and win in the NCAA Tournament. Winning the Sun Belt Tournament, but losing in the first round of the NCAA like they have done the past two years will not be enough to convince the doubters.