The gap between mid-major and high-major women’s basketball teams is closing. Meanwhile, the women’s game across all levels continues to elevate. In this MidcoSN podcast, Kelly Stewart is joined by Graham Hays of espnW.com to discuss the recent rise of mid-major hoops, especially in the Midwest.
Kelly Stewart: (00:00)
On this edition of the MidcoSN podcast. It's all about mid-major hoops, and if there's anyone who knows anything about the mid-major scene, it's my guest today – Graham Hays. He's an extremely talented writer for ESPN.com, covering women's college basketball as well as softball and soccer. I've been reading his articles for years now, starting when I was in college, and he is one of the best. You guys are going to love to hear his takes on a variety of women's hoops topics today.
MidcoSN VO: (00:32)
Welcome to the Midco Sports Network podcast. Here's your host, Kelly Stewart.
Kelly Stewart: (00:38)
Hello, everyone, and welcome to another edition of the MidcoSN podcast. I am Kelly Stewart, thrilled to be joined today by Graham Hays. He's an incredibly talented writer for ESPN.com – he focuses a lot on women's basketball but also does some phenomenal softball and soccer coverage.
So, Graham, thanks for coming on the pod. Happy New Year. How are you doing today?
Graham Hays: (00:59)
Thanks for having me. Happy New Year. Yeah, I'm doing great today – a little cold here in Indiana, but probably not as cold as where you are…as compared to what we have.
Kelly Stewart: (01:05)
Oh man, it's, it's a brisk day. I had the full winter coat going on this morning.
Well, I love talking hoops with anyone, and I imagine the same goes for you. I've followed you, I've read your articles over the years, and I feel like you are one of the best, if not the best at giving coverage to the mid-majors…which hold a special place in my heart. So, that's the primary focus of this podcast. But, I want to know, first of all, how did you get involved in giving the mid-majors coverage? Because I feel like it's been…in the past decade that…they've kind of really come on the scene. When you started covering mid-majors – I remember, even when I was in college – it was still the Baylors and the UConns just dominating. There weren't really “Cinderellas” on the women's side or anything like that. So how'd you get started? Like, "Hey, I'm going to give some coverage to these teams"?
Graham Hays: (02:05)
That's a good question. That's probably – if I add to my increasing age, but I'm not really sure at this point--it's been a while. But, I think basically what it was is one of the things that I've always enjoyed about the sports I get to cover, and my job is...just how many stories are out there that aren't necessarily being told other places. That’s one of the reasons that I love doing a lot of sports – or at least three and not just one, you know, all year round – is trying to branch out, find different stories. I think, you know, at some point it's just – it occured to me that, you know, there are 300-plus Division I schools playing basketball, and there are a lot of good stories out there that aren't necessarily restricted to the Top 25, certainly the Top 10. And if there's a way to kind of group all those together under a label like “mid-major”…fine. You know, it’s just – it’s an opportunity to tell a lot of stories – personal stories off the court, or what's happening on the court, you know. Really good players--really good teams are playing really good basketball. So, it really was just a way to find more stories, I think, for me.
Kelly Stewart: (03:02)
No, I love it. And like you said, there are – I think it's, what, 351 Division I women's basketball teams? There’s a lot of opportunity…but it's not always covered. You know, you see media coverage and stuff (and we're in the media; I can say this), but even growing up, you didn't hear about the "South Dakotas." Granted, when I was in high school, they were still Division II…but even some of the Division I schools that were mid-majors…you just didn't hear about them. Because it was the UConns, it was the Baylors, and all that (which was awesome). At the same time, it's so cool to see – kind of over the past decade – the rise of mid-major schools. With the the New Year, everyone was doing the #DecadeChallenge and all that…and I was just having a moment…sitting there, thinking about mid-major hoops and how far they've come in just 10 years. Why do you think that is? That it's been kind of the “rise”?
Graham Hays: (03:58)
I mean, I think it's probably one of those things that kind of parallels the overall growth of the women's game…where you have all sorts of strands kind of playing into that growth and evolution for the mid-majors. But I mean, I think it's an easy answer, but I think the place it makes sense to start is with coaching. There’s probably, in a sense, a tendency in college basketball to give a little too much credit to the coaches. But I do think with the mid-majors that, especially on the women's side, there's so much continuity with the top programs and the coaching staffs. South Dakota obviously is one of those programs that has actually been able to change a few times and stay successful. But for so many of these programs they see over and over again, to afford a Gulf Coast or a Green Bay…South Dakota State...certainly it's just all these programs that are kind of year in, year out successful, the coaches have been there a long time. Or maybe they've had one coaching change in 10 years. Whereas on the men's side, I think you would expect to see a lot more, kind of, using those jobs as stepping stones. So, I think having that kind of continuity – having that kind of stability in those programs – has certainly allowed them to be more successful. And I think just the overall growth of the sport beyond the college level. You know, as you get more and more youth players, better coaching at the youth level, you just get a larger talent pool for Division I, and not all of those players are going to go to UConn or Baylor or Louisville or Oregon. So, especially with the early recruiting that we had a lot of in this past decade, I think you saw a lot more players kind of slip through the cracks and were available to those mid-major programs to find later on. I think when you get all those different strands in – there were probably half a dozen more that kind of all come together – I think those kind of add up to what you've seen with the growth of the mid-major game.
Kelly Stewart: (05:55)
Well, I just go back to...remember the argument? It was like two or three years ago when people were saying UConn was bad for basketball. And I was like, “Come on, are you kidding me?” Then all of a sudden, it's like that sparked something…or maybe it was just coincidence. I remember I was in Dallas when Mississippi State upset UConn in the semifinals at the Final Four. And it's just like, we have seen not only on the mid-major level, but the high major level, too. UConn is awesome – don't get me wrong…love Geno.
But it's the other schools, it's the Oregons, it's the South Carolinas, it's the Mississippi States…And I feel like that’s just, like you said, the sport as a whole is just progressing. There are more opportunities for kids, as they're younger, to get experience, play some club ball, have contact with coaches. And then going off what you said about the coaching continuity…I also think, and this isn't true with every mid-major, but the facilities factor in. You go to a mid-major school, and it's probably a smaller town…and sometimes the facilities aren't like what you'd see in, you know, a Power Five conference. So, the players get sold by the coaching staff. And is that coaching staff going to buy into them? I feel like these coaches do because they know they're not going to “wow” these high schoolers with facilities all the time (except the Sanford Coyote Sports Center is beautiful, not going to lie). It’s more of that the coaches are bought into these players, and there's that trust that's built from the start. And you just play hard for someone that you know is in your corner. So, I think that's a big part of it too. But yeah, it's been fun to watch the “rise.”
Graham Hays: (07:42)
I think part of it, too—it goes along with what you're saying there – is that for a long time there wasn't the same disparity in coaching salaries between the Power Five conferences and the mid-majors (that invested in women's basketball) on the women's side as there was on the men's side. So, it was easier for those coaches--they didn't face as difficult of a decision about whether or not to leave something that was good…for something that offered five times as much money…to give their family more financial security. So, I think there weren’t, you know, there weren’t incentives…or at least it was easier for them to kind of make that decision to stay where they had something good already. And as you're talking about, that leads to kids wanting to invest in those coaches who they've seen been there for five, 10 years.
Kelly Stewart: (08:25)
1000% agree, and that's a really good point. Do you see the ter, “mid-major” ever going away? Or do you think it's going to stay but the stigma around it – like it already has changed--just will continue to change?
Graham Hays: (08:40)
I think it'll probably stay in some form just because we need some convenient, shorthand way to refer to them. That’s something that I wrestle with a lot, and we wrestle with my editor…and all those who are part of our discussions on the mid-major stuff. You don't want it to be a pejorative term. You don't want it to be like a lesser; "this is different." But at the same time, you need some shorthand way to explain to people why we're focusing on this. And if we didn't have a “mid-major” label, it would be a lot more difficult to explain to readers, explain to our bosses, explain to anybody, why this was worth this much investment, this much time. When you have that kind of “catchall,”…I mean, for our purposes, certainly we lump pretty much everybody who's not in the Power Five and the Big East and American into the mid-major label…it doesn't mean anything, at that point, because you have such a wide disparity between the very low major and the Atlantic 10, or the Summit, or, those kind of "high" mid-majors. It’s a wildly inaccurate term, but unfortunately it kind of, in my view, at least needs to exist right now...or at least it's helpful to have it exist.
Kelly Stewart: (09:53)
No, I agree. And yeah, it does make teams sound lesser. It's like, “High-major!"…and then, "Mid-major. We're so sorry." But like you said, you can't group these schools together. You can't group everyone together...in terms of size of the school, the conference that they're in…stuff like that. So yeah, I agree. I think it will stay. I just think it's cool how the label, the definition of it, is changing.
Talking about some specific mid-majors, especially in the Midwest…obviously I'm based in South Dakota; I cover the Dakotas. BUT, I have the opportunity, especially with USD playing a loaded schedule (and South Dakota State) to see the Drakes and the Missouri States and the Florida Gulf Coasts of the world. Why do you think those schools, in particular, have been successful? You talked about the coaching, and you look at South Dakota State--Aaron Johnston has been there since – I think – 2000. South Dakota had one coaching change, well two I guess...Ryun Williams – I played for my freshman year--and then Amy Williams…and now Dawn Plitzuweit. But it seems like they haven't really missed a beat. Then you look at Missouri State – they're just killing it and they're awesome. And then Florida Gulf Coast, their coach has been there forever, too. So, what have they been doing in their shorter time as Division I schools to climb the ranks so quickly?
Graham Hays: (11:20)
I've noticed this year – it's not new this year—but I think this has hit home for me more this year: just looking at the scheduling. There’s that “top tier" – and you mentioned a lot of the programs that are in it – that “top tier” of mid-majors that are often there year in and year out. And…they schedule differently than other programs, and they do it year in and year out. Some years it bites them; some years that helps them. But there really is a pretty wide chasm between that class of mid-majors who are going out, playing teams on the road, playing in the preseason WNIT, going to South Carolina, playing all these kind of games that may or may not help them…because they don't always get the credit for playing those games or certainly scheduling each other. The Drake/South Dakota game I was at earlier this year – those are really tough games that they've got that they definitely don't get credit for. But going back to the original question – like scheduling that way; scheduling aggressively; scheduling games that you may lose – I think, over the long term, has helped those programs…um, a lot. I mean...short way to say it, but it kind of puts them in a different space in terms of recruiting, I think. I think kids get excited about playing a tougher schedule. I think it gets them ready to play more difficult games in conference season...it gets them ready for March. So, I think when you look at scheduling, that plays a huge role in what those programs are.
Kelly Stewart: (12:48)
I agree. And I think even looking at Dawn Plitzuweit…I grew up in Wisconsin, and she was actually at UW-Green Bay when I was in high school. As you know, we have UW-Green Bay, the University of Wisconsin obviously, and the University of Milwaukee for Division I schools in the state. And it was like, “Oh, this Green Bay team is beating some people.” …But that was when they really started to schedule the big teams. They were playing Big 10 teams or playing Big 12 teams. And yeah, early on, they were losing. But then…then they were winning. Then they were beating these teams. All of a sudden, they're one of the true OGs of the mid-major dynasty. So I think there's so much to be said for scheduling, and it's not easy all the time…because sometimes when you start to get “good,” these bigger schools don't want to play you.
But let's talk about that game that you went to – Drake at USD. We were broadcasting that game for MidcoSN, but you wrote an article after it. It (the message) was like, “You want to schedule the best. You want to play these great schools, but when it's two mid-majors playing each other…it's risky.” I mean, how risky do you think that is in terms of… you said in the article that the next week, both of the teams combined for like…49 votes…in the one of the coaches polls. So, how risky is that (to schedule a tough mid-major when you are a mid-major), and do you think, for the teams, it's more help than harm? Because you're playing, you're getting better as a team, but yet your exposure is possibly suffering.
Graham Hays: (14:20)
Oh for sure. Yeah. I think on the basketball side of it--and I think that's why you see those coaches, they're all bright coaches…they all are a lot smarter than I am – they schedule those games for a reason because they know that it's going to help their team in the long run on the court. Where it hurts is in how people react to it. And then that's understandable when you look at the AP poll voters – there's a limited amount of time in the day, in the week, and that's not their full time job; it's something they do in addition to their work. So, they can't watch 40 games a week. I can't watch 40 games a week. So you understand why they're slower to react and slower to embrace those results. But it's still unfortunate when you're at a game like that – because it wasn't just a close game. It was a really well-played game. It was good basketball. And obviously those two teams… and we've seen, with time, South Dakota has gotten into the rankings. It just takes a little bit longer, and it takes beating some of the teams that do catch eyes…more than beating Drake (even if Drake was a better team than some of the “higher brand recognition” teams that South Dakota has beaten). So it's one of those things that I think is changing slowly. I think it's the reaction time to those games. It's getting better and better, but it's still probably not where it should be in that they aren't getting the credit that they should get at that, at that time.
Kelly Stewart: (15:46)
Mhmm...and I think we can both agree that it is making significant progress. People are starting to notice it starting to get mentioned/talked about…with the help of you, especially writing for ESPN. But, I think it all goes back to that scheduling – scheduling those tough mid-majors against mid-majors. It's kind of the whole, I don't know, “stereotype” behind the mid-majors: they're not concerned about what outsiders think because they've never really gotten that exposure before. They're looking at the end goal; they're looking at “How are we going to be playing in March? How do we be our best when it comes to March?” And that's by scheduling. “Even if it is a mid-major and it's risky if we lose to them and our exposure is down, everything like that, that doesn't matter because we're trying to get better for March.” I think that's in the back of the minds of the coaches, too. I didn't go into coaching because I wouldn't be a great coach.
But, let’s talk about conference tournaments. You wrote an article – it came out December 31st – Which mid-major races have the highest stakes in women's college basketball? You said, and here's a quote:
Conference tournaments make the regular season less meaningful across the board. Tournaments aren't evil, mind you. The problem comes in attaching an enormous prize to the smallest possible sample size, and then frequently making matters even more arbitrary by playing on neutral courts.
So, do you think… And I love conference tournaments, and I can say that after losing…it's just such an incredible atmosphere. The Summit League [Tournament] – I mean, it's incredible here at the Denny in Sioux Falls. But do you think there's a better way to decide a conference's auto-bid? Do you think there's going to be a different movement in the next few years or anything? Or do you think conference tournaments and how the process is right now is going to stay the same?
Graham Hays: (17:43)
I do think that there's a better way. It's been kind of one of my pet peeves for a long time. I don't think it's going to change. I realize I'm just kind of shouting into the wind, and most people probably disagree with me. But yeah, I just, I don't inherently like the idea of giving the automatic bid to somebody who's good for three days as opposed to somebody who's good for three months. I think that the team that wins the regular season championship has accomplished a lot more, has shown a lot more, has earned that prize a lot more than somebody who wins the conference tournament. There was a time when I didn't like conference tournaments at all. I'm not opposed to them because I talked to a lot of players, like you were saying, who really enjoy them. They enjoy that atmosphere, they enjoy the competition. So I mean, my thing is just if the conference tournaments are worth playing, play them, but don't attach the automatic bid to it. You know, you can still win. You’re still the Summit League conference tournament champion. You get a trophy, you cut down the nets, you have that experience to look back on. But the team that won the regular season…gets the automatic bid.
Kelly Stewart: (18:49)
Retweet. Retweet 1000%. I agree.
Graham Hays: (18:54)
That that's what I would like to see. But I don't think that's ever going to happen.
Kelly Stewart: (18:58)
I know I would like to see that too. Do you remember – I think it was back in 2016 – and Jay Bilas (it was a really hot topic because the bracket was all over that year)…but Jay Bilas came out with that plan where he talked about, throughout the year, everyone's ranked one through 64…so you know where you're at. And if there's an upset in the conference tournament, then that team jumps up, they're going to knock out number 64. I'm probably not explaining that well – do you remember when he was talking about that?
Graham Hays: (19:29)
Kelly Stewart: (19:29)
It was like the "Jay Bilas Plan."
Graham Hays: (19:30)
I mean, it sounds intriguing.
Kelly Stewart: (19:30)
No, it really was. It was kind of, I mean, it was similar to an RPI in some sense, but more…I feel like more accurate. It was basically, you know where you’re at throughout the whole season, and if you are number 64…well, you better hope that someone doesn't upset someone in a conference tournament and bump you out. It was more fair, I thought, and I thought it rewarded the regular season performance. I mean the season is…it'd be three months of regular season, not three days.
I don't think it'll be changed in the near future, but you know, we can only hope. So, speaking of the NCAA tournament…and it's going to be here before we know it…Charlie Creme's bracket that I was looking at (it came out January 3rd – the most recent one)…anything that sticks out to you? Do you agree, disagree on certain teams? Any surprises or sleepers that you specifically see in there?
Graham Hays: (20:37)
No, I mean, when it comes to the bracket, I happily defer to Charlie, haha. He spends a lot of time. He's really, really good at it.
Kelly Stewart: (20:45)
Graham Hays: (20:45)
I've played around with those things in soccer and softball, and they're not a lot of fun because...the only thing you can do is make people mad at you.
Kelly Stewart: (20:53)
Graham Hays: (20:53)
So I give him full respect 'cause he does a really good job with it. But I was looking at his fairly recently, and one of the things that kind of jumped out at me was just that…I think he had either four or five teams (that would qualify for our mid-major rankings) seeded such that they would be the higher seed in the opening round. So they would be favored to win a first round game, hypothetically. I haven't gone back and looked at the data; I want to at some point when we get closer to March. But I would imagine that would be among the higher totals in recent years to have that many mid-majors seeded one through eight in the first round. And I think that's a really important development and in the long run because it's great that the mid-majors get in, but they're kind of always expected to upset people.
Kelly Stewart: (21:42)
Graham Hays: (21:43)
That's the only way they can progress. And that's not really… I think there are at least four or five mid-majors every year that are, you know, among the best 30 to 32 teams in the country, which is what those seedings would reflect, but hasn't always been the case with what the committee does. So that…THAT jumped out to me…that if that's actually comes to pass – and Charlie is usually pretty accurate – that that would be a sign of progress, and that we need more mid-majors getting, you know, seeded six, seven, eight… kind of have more of a chance to actually compete on even footing.
Kelly Stewart: (22:13)
Yeah. I have the bracket in front of me right now (the January 3rd one), and you have South Dakota at a No. 6 seed, Missouri State at a No. 5 seed, Florida Gulf Coast, eight seed...um, Gonzaga, No. 4 seed. And then Princeton, No. 7 Seed. So, yeah, like you said, I think that's not how it's been in past years and, like you said, Charlie is accurate with this stuff.
I appreciate his Bracketology. So if you want to give him a compliment, tell him that for me.
Finally, let's talk about mid-major player of the year candidates. Getting specific again, you came out with an article, had six names on there and then some “honorable mention” names. You had Ciara Duffy leading the way, but then Alexa Willard on Missouri State – I was so impressed by her when they played at USD. Sara Rhine, very impressed by her. I haven't really had a chance to see Micaela Kelly, Raina Perez or Bella Alarie play. But has your opinion changed, I mean, on any of these? Or are there any new names that you'd put on your list?
Graham Hays: (23:25)
No, I think it's held fairly true. It's interesting to me that it sort of parallels what it feels – what the larger college basketball picture looks like to me this year…which is most of the really good teams don't necessarily have that one alpha star…that they're kind of led by “ensemble cast.” And they may have one player who stands out a little bit but isn't kind of that…Elena Delle Donne or Jackie Stiles kind of presence. So, it's difficult to figure out who are the favorites. But I think for me more and more, it feels like it's – right now at least – a race between Duffy and Bella Alarie at Princeton (who missed some time early in the year). But if she's able to… as of now she's missed about a third of their games, which would be a lot if you're voting today. But if she's able to play the rest of the season, that won't look like much. So, I think those two kind of stand out, and then there's a fairly large class kind of right after them that can easily catch them with the names you mentioned. Also, Micaela Kelly at Central Michigan would be in there – she’s having a really good year. Kamiah Smalls at James Madison is doing wonders for them. So I think there's probably six, seven, eight players right after Duffy and Alarie that could catch them. So it's…I guess what I'm saying is it's still a wide open race to this point.
Kelly Stewart: (24:52)
Mhmm...a lot of basketball left to be played…as much as we're going to blink and it's going to be March…but still lots of games left to be played.
Well, that is all I have for you today, Graham. So thank you so much for joining me and thank you for the great hoops chat. Any upcoming games you're really looking forward to? Upcoming match-ups?
Graham Hays: (25:11)
It's a big weekend this weekend. Got a lot of good stuff. Got Central Michigan at Ohio tonight—big MAC game. St. Mary's/Gonzaga is this weekend. Drake/Missouri State, Princeton/Penn, Florida Gulf Coast/Stetson. It's a big week for kind of big rivalry games in the mid-major conferences. So I'll be looking forward a lot of those games.
Kelly Stewart: (25:31)
Alright, looking forward to getting your take on those. Well, thanks again for joining me.
Graham Hays: (25:36)
Kelly Stewart: (25:37)
Alright, that concludes this episode of the MidcoSN podcast. Again, huge thank you to my guest today, Graham Hays, and if you are not already, make sure to follow him on social media, you can find him on Twitter as @grahamhays. I'll also include his Twitter handle in the podcast write-up so you can make sure you get the right spelling and give him a follow. And, also be sure to follow MidcoSN on social as well. Thanks for listening to this episode of the MidcoSN podcast.
MidcoSN VO: (26:04)
Thanks for listening to this MidcoSN Podcast. To listen to any of our past episodes, visit www.MidcoSN.com/Podcast.