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Butler, ESPN, and High-major Status

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Xavier packed the Cintas Center for last year's 51-49 win over Butler. Mario Mercurio is looking to extend the rivalry with Butler.
Xavier packed the Cintas Center for last year's 51-49 win over Butler. Mario Mercurio is looking to extend the rivalry with Butler.

If you don't read The Mid-Majority, you should. Over there, Kyle Whelliston - whose passion for college basketball is irrefutable - attempts to define the term mid-major in a way that makes sense. His Red Line is the theory that results from his work. Whelliston states that conferences in which that average athletic budget is more than $20 million and the average men's basketball budget is over $2 million are considered "major." Below that, and you're a mid-major, or worse. Obviously, I've left out some nuance.

To keep everything in order, Whelliston excepted three teams from his Red Line rule. These were teams whose financial outlay and on-court success were so far out of keeping with that of their respective conferences that they skewed the numbers. As you may have guessed, Xavier rises out of the Atlantic 10 as one of them. The others are Gonzaga and Memphis. Remove these three teams from their conferences, and the conferences go from straddling the Red Line to firmly below it.

For my purposes, I'd also like to add Butler to that "non-BCS high major" mix. While Butler may not fit the criteria perfectly, they've been too successful - and are splashing too much cash - to labor under the mid-major tag. These three teams, along with the Muskies, occupy their own tier of collegiate basketball powers that have separated themselves from the mid-major cloud without jumping into one of the BCS conferences. At the same time, they're all starting to show up on Xavier's (and one another's) annual slate of opponents.

Since the beginning of the 2008-2009 season, Xavier has played a total of five regular season games against Butler (three), Memphis, and Gonzaga (one each), and all three of those teams appear on Xavier's schedule this year. That's not a coincidence. In a recent phone interview with us, Xavier's Director of Basketball Administration Mario Mercurio said that he pursues games in that level with a purpose. "It's something we try to target," he said. "Games between any of those four schools get that high-major coverage. When you see those games with Butler and Gonzaga on ESPN in HD, you can see that those teams are on the same level as the NC States and the Georgia Techs."

These games serve more than one purpose. Not only do they give Xavier a good non-conference game against a quality and motivated opponent, they also serve, according to Mercurio, to "remind other people that we've moved out of the mid-majors, and that we're a team with major quality and major resources."

Xavier features three of these pivotal games this year. The better X performs in these big-stage contests, the more it reinforces the fact that the Musketeers' program is not just a one-hit wonder carried by Jimmer or The Show or the coach's kid. As X and a few others continue to distinguish themselves, other people take notice. Forbes recently ranked Xavier as the 15th most valuable college basketball program. Mercurio also noted that other teams such as the UNLV Runnin' Rebels (ranked 20th on the same Forbes list) have begun to follow the same path to non-BCS major status.

This brings me back to the Tweet that precipitated this whole train of thought in my mind, the one in which Mercurio announced that he was working with Butler and ESPN to extend the series with the Bulldogs. From the days of Dan Dickau and Blake Stepp through John Calipari's brief (and since expunged) stay at Memphis to Butler's current back-to-back flirtations with national titles, each of those three teams has been the dominant force in the non-BCS landscape. By targeting them in scheduling, Xavier gives the team an opportunity to demonstrate yet again that the program also belongs in that high-major tier.