NCAA Tournament Gives Mid-Major Colleges, Players Chance to Prove They Belong With Big Boys

Courtney Lee, Jason Thompson, DeMarcus Cousins, Francisco Garcia, Tyreke EvansBOSTON — Several times during Courtney Lee‘s decorated college career at Western Kentucky, an opposing coach, often from a big-time program in a major conference, would come up to the Hilltoppers shooting guard and asked how they overlooked him in their recruiting.

Lee’s response was always swift, terse and tinged with attitude.

“I don’t know,” Lee would reply. “But you did.”

Five years later, Lee is in the NBA, starting in the Celtics backcourt over players recruited to powerhouses like Indiana and Arizona. His Hilltoppers are back in the NCAA Tournament, matched up against Kansas in what is essentially a home game for the Jayhawks in Kansas City, Mo., and the memories of the ways both he and his school were slighted are still fresh in his mind. Come tournament time, there is no more discrepancy between major, mid-major and small-conference programs or players. Everyone in the field of 68 stands on equal footing.

Over the next two weeks, players who were passed over by the likes of Duke and North Carolina as high schoolers will have a chance to exact the final word. Creighton shares a bracket with the Blue Devils. Saint Louis could be overall No. 1 Louisville’s stiffest competition for a Final Four spot. Gonzaga has a No. 1 seed and will be favored over whichever Big East, Big Ten, Big 12 or SEC opponent it faces in the West Region. In the one-and-done format, how many stars were next to the players’ names on the scouting websites become much less relevant to who can perform better for 40 minutes.

That was the attitude Lee and his Western Kentucky teammates took into the 2008 tournament. The Hilltoppers knocked off fifth-seeded Drake and beat San Diego, which had scored its own upset win over UConn, before giving Final Four-bound UCLA all it could handle in the Sweet 16. Lee is quick to clarify that WKU was a mid-major program, but it had major players. In addition to Lee, small forward Jeremy Evans now plays for the Utah Jazz and guard Tyrone Brazelton plays overseas.

“First of all, I love Western Kentucky,” Lee said. “I enjoyed my time there. It is what it is. When we went into games, our focus was to just get out there and win, but [the mid-major label] did shoot a little bit more motivation out there, especially when we played against major universities.”

For Lee, the pressure of March helped propel him into the national consciousness and, eventually, into the NBA. Somewhere in this year’s field there is a player like Lee, who will outplay all the five-star and blue-chip recruits on the court, and some opposing coach will wonder how in world they missed him coming out of high school.

Have a question for Ben Watanabe? Send it to him via Twitter at @BenjeeBallgame or send it here.

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