NCAA bubble trouble: Pandemic pushes mid-majors to margins

FILE - In this Feb. 1, 2021, file photo, Drake forward Tremell Murphy, left, drives past Illinois State forward Abdou Ndiaye (4) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Des Moines, Iowa. The economic downturn across college sports caused by the pandemic led Drake to slash its athletic budget, including a quarter of what it spends on men's basketball. Earning a bid to the NCAA Tournament won't pull Drake out of its financial hole, but every little bit helps. Getting an extra team into the field for the Missouri Valley Conference could mean another $1.8 million--give or take--for the league to distribute to its 10 members over the next six years. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)
FILE - In this Feb. 1, 2021, file photo, Drake forward Tremell Murphy, left, drives past Illinois State forward Abdou Ndiaye (4) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Des Moines, Iowa. The economic downturn across college sports caused by the pandemic led Drake to slash its athletic budget, including a quarter of what it spends on men's basketball. Earning a bid to the NCAA Tournament won't pull Drake out of its financial hole, but every little bit helps. Getting an extra team into the field for the Missouri Valley Conference could mean another $1.8 million--give or take--for the league to distribute to its 10 members over the next six years. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

The economic downturn across college sports caused by the pandemic led Drake to slash its athletic budget, including a quarter of what it spends on men's basketball.

Earning a bid to the NCAA Tournament won't pull Drake out of its financial hole, but every little bit helps. Getting an extra team into the field for the Missouri Valley Conference could mean another $1.8 million — give or take — for the league to distribute to its 10 members over the next six years.

That only increases the stakes for the Bulldogs at this weekend's MVC tournament in St. Louis. Despite having one of the best seasons in school history, Drake (24-3) is no better than a bubble team according to the bracketologists, one of several from outside college basketball's big six conferences.

The wealthiest conferences — ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC and Big East — hoarding valuable at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament has been a trend since realignment swept through college sports in the early 2010s. A costly one for the conferences that don't have billion-dollar television deals.

This pandemic-altered season seems to have marginalized the so-called mid-majors even more — and at a time when they can really use the cash.

The cancellation of the NCAA Tournament last year because of the pandemic forced the association to slash its revenue distribution to schools and conferences by $375 million.

“Because of COVID and because of distribution dollars being down we had to reduce all of our budgets at Drake 15-25%, including basketball,” Drake athletic director Brian Hardin said. “That has an impact on how you travel and how you schedule. To now sit on the bubble, you hate to think that you're penalized for some situations that are to a degree out of your control.”

As of Thursday, Drake was 41st in the NCAA's NET rankings. The Bulldogs are the No. 2 seed in the MVC tournament and play Friday night after a getting a bye into the quarterfinals. Loyola Chicago is the top seed and considered close to a sure thing to earn an at-large bid to the NCAAs if it does not win the MVC's automatic bid.