Cinderella officially departs the NCAA tourney
The NCAA tournament is at a tipping point.
The old model of a dozen or so tradition-rich programs from the
six power conferences fighting among themselves for the title year
after year is on its last legs. If neither of the so-called
mid-majors playing in Saturday’s first semifinal, Butler or
Virginia Commonwealth, break that stranglehold this year, one of
their counterparts will soon enough.
Already, upsets don’t mean nearly as much as they once did.
Seedings mean even less.
”There aren’t any weak sisters,” Hall of Fame coach and
current ESPN analyst Bob Knight said before Sunday’s games. ”I
don’t care if they came from the Canary Island League. Anybody that
gets here is going to be able to play.”
VCU emerged from the not-quite-as-exotic Colonial Athletic
Association, the same league that sprung Final Four party crasher
George Mason five years ago. And it only seems as if the Rams began
their tournament run on the other side of the world.
Instead, since kicking open the door in the newly added ”First
Four” round of games as a No. 11 seed, they’ve faced opponents
from five of the six power conferences – only the SEC has been
lucky enough to avoid a battering – and haven’t looked overmatched
in a single one.
After his No. 1 Jayhawks lost 71-61, Kansas coach Bill Self said
if the players from both sides were sprinkled into a shirts vs.
skins game, it would be impossible to tell which ones had the
”They got what they deserved today,” he said about the Rams.
”They certainly outplayed us.”
VCU’s win may have overshadowed an even more impressive
accomplishment by Butler, a school with 4,500 students that
returned to the Final Four after losing to Duke last year, when a
half-court shot by since-departed NBA pick Gordon Hayward at the
buzzer missed by inches. No team outside the six power conferences
has done that since UNLV in 1990-91, but the way the two programs
arrived at the same place couldn’t be much different or more
reflective of the eras.
Back then, UNLV was an NBA team-in-waiting, much like perennial
powers North Carolina, Kansas and Kentucky, loaded with veteran
talent. In the intervening years, the kids that used to stack up at
those programs began jumping to the NBA after a season or two, or
fanned out to smaller schools where they cashed in on opportunities
to play right away and get the TV exposure once reserved for the
As more dollars trickled down to midlevel programs, bright young
coaches such as Butler’s Brad Stevens, 34, and VCU’s Shaka Smart,
33, took advantage of the same shortcuts. What they quickly figured
out was that continuity – keeping second-tier players together for
several seasons – was the fastest way to close the talent gap,
especially in the tournament.
Butler and VCU likely couldn’t beat Kansas and Florida, to name
just their past two opponents, in a best-of-three series. But in
the lose-and-go-home format, they only have to figure out a way to
do it once.
Kentucky coach John Calipari, whose No. 4 Wildcats play No. 3
Connecticut in the other semifinal, keeps getting results by
recruiting the most-talented one-and-done players available and
reloading season after season, but he’s an exception. This season’s
UConn team is more of a hybrid, led by late-blooming junior guard
Kemba Walker, with several freshmen sharing the load.
What all four squads have proved by taking different approaches
is the seeding process that consumes so much of the NCAA selection
committee’s time and the media’s attention is becoming
There are no No. 1 or 2 seeds for the first time since seeding
was used in 1979, when the tournament was expanded to 40 teams and
the rankings put in place to give teams in the 1-6 slots a bye for
the first round. Though it’s not as exact a comparison because of
all the conference shifts since 1979, this year was also the first
time that two teams outside the power leagues have made the Final
The only way those numbers don’t increase with each passing year
is this: While college basketball’s royalty is having trouble
keeping its best players for long, the mid-majors just arriving may
find it equally tough to hang onto the best young coaches such as
Stevens and Smart. No doubt some of the teams filling out the lower
rungs in the power leagues are already drafting offers.
Small wonder those same vested interests cling to power so
desperately in college football, using the Bowl Championship Series
to stack the deck in the postseason. Otherwise, the anarchy that
has made this already the most unpredictable playoff ever could
spread like wildfire.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated
Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org