NCAA tourney shockers reflect growing parity

TUCSON, Ariz. – In a season when the No. 1 team in the country was never really safe, it has become the year of the little guys.

Fifteen-seed Florida Gulf Coast University take a bow.

Same for you, La Salle. Who said a No. 13-seed  was unlucky?

Ditto for 12th-seeded Oregon and ninth-seeded Wichita State. All were part of the upsetpalooza of the NCAA’s second round when eight double-digit winners wowed and amazed. LaSalle faces Wichita State in the Sweet 16 in Los Angeles on Thursday, where No. 6 Arizona faces No. 2 Ohio State.

The 2013 Big Dance has turned into a parity party – a fiesta for the under-valued and overlooked.
And this from the NCAA tournament – already a case study in histrionics.

“The gap between the elite teams and the next 40 teams keeps getting smaller,” said former Arizona State coach Bill Frieder, now the lead radio color analyst for Dial Global Sports. “That’s why there will continue to be surprises. But there’s not much difference between a five-seed and a 12-seed (these days).”

This follows a year in which no No. 1 team ever really had solid footing in the polls. For five consecutive weeks, the No. 1 team lasted just one week at the top. And the final No. 1, Gonzaga, was knocked off last week by Wichita State.

No. 1? The spot was too hot to handle and too cold to hold.

This season the No. 1 spot should read: To Be Determined.

Eventually, Frieder said the “cream surfaces” and it will again this year. He points out that 11 of the top 15 teams are still tournament survivors.

“One, two and three seeds are still alive in three regions,” said Frieder, who will cover games this weekend in Los Angeles at the Staples Center, “the winner will come from those.”

Sure, tell that to the teams that were upset by the upstarts. At the very least, the Florida Gulf Coasts of the world have turned into the fun bunch for fans.

Every year it happens, but this year it overflowed. Even Gonzaga, once the little guy who could, got Zagged.

“Teams now have players like Gonzaga once had – four and five-year seniors,” said Lute Olson, Arizona’s former Hall of Fame coach. “Not sure that’s entirely the case with all of them, but teams like those haven’t been raided by the NBA for their players.”

All of a sudden it’s in vogue to be a cagey veteran – or have them on the team. All season, Arizona coach Sean Miller enjoyed the fact that his team had the right mix of veterans and youth – three seniors, a standout sophomore and a trio of solid freshmen — but not so solid that they’re in a hurry to go pro. Let’s also remember that former Arizona star Derrick Williams would be a senior this season had he chose to stay four years at Arizona. Of course, the lure of being a lottery pick and millions of dollars has him in the NBA right now.

Former USC coach George Raveling, now Director for International Basketball for Nike, said a lot of factors have come into play in explaining the growing parity:

— Scholarship limitations: 13 per team.

— Transfer students, which are plentiful.

— Fifth-year players.

— And the talent pool has all but doubled if you consider foreign students who can play.

Olson likened the mid-majors to the foreign game of 20-plus years ago when he and other coaches would go overseas and help coach fundamentals. Back then, he said it was only a matter of time before they’d be competitive with the United States. And that’s happened.

“I remember Charles Barkley saying that when the Dream Team first played against the foreign teams they were like huge stars (for their opponents), asking for autographs and such,” Olson said. “But four years later they weren’t asking for autographs. They were looking to beat the U.S.”

In terms of the college comparison, Olson said it’s the same with today’s college game.

“When you look at Florida Gulf Coast’s players you see that they can play with anybody,” Olson said. “They are not (intimidated), and part of the reason why is they’ve played against guys at the major universities in the spring and summer leagues.”

Raveling pointed out that 35 players from Canada are on Division I rosters, and “all but three are starters.”

“There are more Division I schools, so there are more opportunities for kids to achieve at that level,” Raveling said. “You look at Florida Gulf Coast and say, ‘how did all the high major schools miss on these guys?’ There’s not one guy on that roster anyone has heard about before.”

But here they are in the Sweet 16 and with the hope of reaching the Final Four and taking up the torch from George Mason, which shocked the college basketball world as a No. 12 seed in 2006.

Ultimately, it’s a matter of a group of players jelling and playing their best basketball at the right time.

“At the end of the day,” Raveling said, “that’s one of the things and responsibilities as a head coach – to have your team playing its best basketball at the end of the season. That’s the most overt evidence that you achieved growth and success.”