Monday, March 28, 2011

A Mid-Major Night's Dream

Five years after George Mason did it in 2006, VCU guard Joey Rodriguez and head coach Shaka Smart lead Rams to Final Four as 11 seed out of Colonial Athletic Association. Ironically, VCU got into NCAA Tournament at George Mason's expense. (Photo courtesy of New York Daily News)

Sixty-four teams have come and gone from the initial 68 to appear within the NCAA Tournament; and of the remaining quartet, each of the Final Four members have made themselves either loved or hated, depending on who you talk to. The only other common thread between the four programs is that hardly anyone expected them to be sharing the stage in Houston's Reliant Stadium this weekend.

After a scintillating 2010 Tournament where a small school from Indiana (they're back again this year) captivated a nation and nearly won it all on a halfcourt shot, we as college basketball fans have literally seen it all in this year's field of 68. From numerous upsets in every round thus far all the way to players who have made a name for themselves no matter what ultimately happens on Monday night, this year's edition of the NCAA Tournament has given us more than just "One Shining Moment."

Saturday night's national semifinals serve as living proof. In one matchup, you have tradition and notoriety. The winningest program of all time versus one of the greatest success stories of the 1990s and early 2000s, being supervised by two coaches whose relationship with one another is contentious at best; and even that is an understatement. Connecticut against Kentucky. Jim Calhoun and John Calipari one-on-one, one more time after their epic battles two decades ago when Calhoun's UConn squad squared off with Calipari's brash upstarts from the University of Massachusetts in a never-ending battle for New England bragging rights that left nothing spared. Yet in the conclusion of the doubleheader is a matchup that has basketball purists, BCS critics and proponents of a 96-team field salivating; a meeting that could be a double-edged sword for the future of college basketball as we know it for several reasons.

Virginia Commonwealth. The prototypical Cinderella story of this year's 68-team field, VCU survived the inaugural "First Four" play-in round after earning a questionable bid on Selection Sunday. Two weeks later, Shaka Smart's Rams are on the precipice of something big after unexpected victories over Southern California, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State, and most recently, Kansas yesterday afternoon. Should VCU win two more games, Smart, who turns 34 a week from Friday, will be the youngest head coach since 1940 to win a national title; and just the fourth African-American coach to cut down the nets. For a school that plays in the same conference as former national darlings George Mason, the Rams have landed in the Lone Star State in much the same fashion as the Patriots crashed the Final Four party back in 2006. For instance, both were No. 11 seeds out of the Colonial Athletic Association; and in a statistic sure to upset some people in Hempstead, both schools finished behind Long Island's own Hofstra University in the CAA standings.

VCU's opponent five days from today is the reigning king of storybook runs, the program reminiscent of the girl or boy next door you have a crush on. Butler University, last year a human embodiment of the classic movie "Hoosiers," this year looking to prove that their near-miracle was more than just an aberration. The Bulldogs and 34-year-old prodigy Brad Stevens have defied improbable odds yet again; and even though their regional opened up favorably for them in comparison to their path to the championship game a year ago, their encore is similar in that Butler once again eliminated both of the top two seeds in their quadrant of the bracket (Pittsburgh and Florida) just as they did last year, when they sent Syracuse and Kansas State to the exits in the West regional.

VCU and Butler. Butler and VCU. Two underdogs gaining the national limelight in a dream matchup for most, but a nightmare for others. How, you might ask? Well, for starters, having these schools play one another in the Final Four speaks for the parity in college basketball that cannot be replicated anywhere else on any other playing field; a sport where anything can and will happen to anyone and everyone if given the right opportunity. This matchup inspires the student-athletes at mid-majors to dream big with their fans in an era that has given rise to the little guy ever since Gonzaga started all the madness with their Elite Eight run back in 1999, and encourages athletic departments and administrators to sink more money into the programs. It also puts the pressure on college football's much-maligned judge, jury and executioner more commonly known as the Bowl Championship Series to either revitalize an archaic and flawed system yet again or finally disband and give way to the playoff tournament fans and coaches alike have long been clamoring for on the gridiron, which itself has seen the rise of mid-major institutions succeeding on the national level; prime examples being Boise State's numerous victories in BCS-affiliated bowls and Texas Christian's win over Wisconsin in the iconic Rose Bowl this past January.

However, as much as the imminent VCU-Butler clash will be a watershed moment for all the right reasons in sports, there are also some glaring downsides to this pairing. Chief among the negatives is the fact that the two mid-majors are playing one another before the national championship game. Nothing against Kentucky or Connecticut, but the prospect of two second-tier schools playing to determine who emerges the champion is far more appealing and intriguing to the casual fan than a preliminary matchup in the national semis; one where the winner is almost certain to have the odds stacked against them in the title game a week from tonight. The NCAA also loses far greater marketing potential with these two colliding in the Final Four. I know it's circumstance, but if VCU and Butler were on other sides of the bracket and won in separate games Saturday night, each of the NCAA's hundreds of Division I member universities would be gaining far greater sums on their bottom line through the myriad of revenue sources that would be brought in by a prospective VCU-Butler national championship.

Finally, the potential death knell for a matchup of mid-majors in the Final Four is a justification for expansion of the NCAA Tournament to 96 teams. The hot-button issue of expansion is still fresh in the minds of many college basketball insiders and hardcore fans after the NCAA decided to add three more teams to the field this year, giving birth to the "First Four" that produced VCU in the first place. This alone gives those in favor of going to 96 the opportunity to state their case by saying that had it not been for expansion, albeit gradual at that, Virginia Commonwealth would not even be here with the opportunity to make history. Many, including myself, have argued that if it is not broken; and the NCAA Tournament is clearly not, do not fix it. A 96-team field would give us a greater probability of having mid-majors play for the national championship; but if you looked at this year's bubble, it was far from a piece of eye candy. On top of that, the list of benefits of a national championship or Final Four meeting between Iona and Drexel (no disrespect to either of those two programs) is about as long as Bill Belichick's tenure as "HC of the NYJ."

No matter how you slice it, the national landscape in college basketball has been repainted yet again. However, we won't truly know whether or not to appreciate it right away. Butler and VCU will go a long way in determining what to make of this improbable month for better or worse, and they have already given new meaning to the terms "March Madness" and "Cinderella." Now they get to engage the masses on the grandest stage of them all.

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