NEW YORK – Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall bristles when he hears the term "mid-major" applied to his team, even though he understands where people are coming from.
"There is not a lot that is mid-major about these guys," Marshall said.
The Shockers have yet another opportunity to prove that Thursday night, when they face top-seeded Alabama in the NIT championship game. It's the first of two eventual title games that pit teams from smaller leagues against those from the major conferences.
Butler and VCU meet in the Final Four in Houston on Saturday, with the winner facing UConn or Kentucky — a pair of traditional basketball powers — for the national championship.
"I like to refer to our situation as a non-BCS program," Marshall said of the conferences that belong to football's Bowl Championship Series. Wichita State is part of the Missouri Valley Conference, and doesn't even have a football program anymore.
"There are a lot of major programs that would like these guys," Marshall said. "Generally we recruit players who, in two or three years, the BCS folks will turn and go, 'How did you get them?' You just have to develop young athletes who have that potential."
That's been the blueprint at Butler, which is in the Final Four for the second straight year, and VCU, which was built in part by current Crimson Tide coach Anthony Grant.
He led the Rams to a first-round upset of Duke in the NCAA tournament four years ago, then took them back to the tournament two years ago, before leaving for Tuscaloosa.
"There are certainly challenges at both places," Grant said. "It is difficult to compare the two. We certainly had to work hard at VCU to win our conference and play championship-level basketball, and that is certainly no different at Alabama."
There are still plenty of differences, though.
Schools like Alabama, with cash-cow football programs, have budgets that far outpace those from smaller conferences. And basketball programs such as Kentucky and Connecticut have extensive history that coaches can sell to potential recruits.
Wichita State has had its share of success, and even sent a few players to the pros, though it is usually overshadowed in its own state by heavyweights Kansas and Kansas State. But there have also been times when the Shockers have been the last one standing, left to showcase their program to a national audience after their Big 12 neighbors have gone home.
In 2006, Wichita State reached the regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament before losing to fellow mid-major and eventual Final Four darling George Mason. The Jayhawks were upset by No. 13 seed Bradley that year, and the Wildcats didn't even make the tournament.
This year, Kansas lost to VCU and Kansas State was ousted by Wisconsin.
"They are a very deep team, and extremely talented," Grant said of the Shockers, who ripped Washington State 77-45 in an NIT semifinal Tuesday night. "They were one game away from winning their league championship. They have an outstanding basketball team."
They were led in scoring against the Cougars by Garrett Stutz, a 7-foot center that few other schools recruited. Toure Murry and Gabe Blair also had mild interest from bigger schools, but chose instead to star for a school in the middle of the Heartland, where they could forge an identity for themselves with their blue-collar work ethic.
"This definitely is a tribute to our defense and how well we're playing," Blair said.
Alabama was left hanging on Selection Sunday, despite beating Georgia — a team that made the field — twice in the final weeks of the season. The Crimson Tide could have sulked, but instead have embraced the opportunity to continue playing in March.
"I'm just glad we've been able to advance and play for a championship," said freshman guard Trevor Releford, who scored the go-ahead basket in the closing seconds of a 62-61 victory over Colorado in the other semifinal Tuesday night.
Grant has been asked about VCU just as much as Alabama this week, and has politely answered every question. The young coach acknowledges that he's enjoyed watching his former players make a deep NCAA tournament run, and plans to watch them again on Saturday.
First, though, he'll try to coach Alabama to a title of its own.
"Our preparation does not change from one game to the next," Grant said. "This one happens to be for a championship, but we will prepare the same way. We're going to play to our identity and do the things that we have done all year and that have led us to be successful."