The team with the most Final Four experience is the No. 8 seed from the Horizon League. The team on the most dominant run through the NCAA tournament thus far is the No. 11 seed that finished fourth in the Colonial Athletic Association.
Welcome to the new age of the NCAA tournament, where the regular season is nearly irrelevant, the Cinderella moniker is obsolete and office pools are a snooze in late March because most everyone’s brackets are busted. A topsy-turvy regular season devoid of great teams and can’t-miss NBA prospects has yielded the most deliciously inexplicable NCAA tournament since the field was expanded to 64 teams more than a quarter century ago.
“It is wild,” Kansas Coach Bill Self said after his team was on the wrong end of the tournament’s biggest upset for the second consecutive year.
The Final Four is without a No. 1 or No. 2 seed for the first time since seeding began in 1979. And 11th-seeded Virginia Commonwealth and eighth-seeded Butler, the highest combined seeds ever to meet in a national semifinal, create a big-stage, prime-time matchup that Kreskin could not have foreseen.
Just two entries among the 5.9 million brackets entered in ESPN’s tournament challenge have all four Final Four teams correct. In many office pools, it would have been virtually impossible to pick VCU for a deep run because the Rams were relegated to one of the four play-in games that were not even counted in many contests.
The last few years have ushered in a new era. In the past five years, four mid-major teams — George Mason (2006), Butler (2010, 2011) and VCU (2011) — have reached the Final Four. Butler became the first team from outside a power league to reach the Final Four in consecutive seasons since Nevada-Las Vegas in 1990 and 1991. More teams than ever before have a legitimate chance to win the national title.
“If you go 20 years ago, you could circle about eight or 12 teams, sometimes less than that, who are capable of winning six games, a national championship, or if you look at it from four games, getting to a Final Four,” Arizona Coach Sean Miller said. “Now you could make the argument that over half the tournament field is capable of that.”
Talent is dispersed across the country; players don’t need to play in a major conference any more to appear on television. And since players started to forgo years of eligibility to enter the NBA draft en masse, the gap between the brand-name programs and upstart mid-majors has narrowed.
Top-tier programs still have talent, but it is usually young. Kentucky and Connecticut, two Final Four teams, rank worse than 300th nationally in experience. The best mid-major programs have senior-laden squads.
“When you have a senior-laden team like we do, you have an opportunity to go make a run like this,” VCU Coach Shaka Smart said, “because we have as much experience as anyone we are going to play. So with us and Butler matching up going to the semifinals, it is a game for — I don’t want to say the little guys — but the medium-sized guys.”
There were signs this level of parity was coming when Gonzaga, just starting to build its program, reached the regional final in 1999 and nearly beat eventual champion U-Conn. Three years later, Kent State reached the region final. The biggest breakthrough was George Mason’s Final Four run in 2006, which Coach Jim Larranaga told columnist Mike Wise was like Roger Bannister cracking the four-minute mile. Last season, Butler took it a step further by reaching the national title game. And now two mid-majors are in the Final Four.
The tournament now has rendered the season less relevant. The most prominent faces of the regular season — Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger, Brigham Young’s Jimmer Fredette and Duke’s Nolan Smith — have been replaced by the likes of more obscure, but invaluable players: Butler’s Matt Howard, VCU’s Joey Rodriguez, Kentucky’s Josh Harrellson and Connecticut’s Jeremy Lamb. (U-Conn.’s Kemba Walker has been one of the few constants throughout.)
Regular season results are no longer indications of what to expect in March. On Feb. 3, after a loss to Youngstown State, Butler was 14-9 and 6-5 in the Horizon League. VCU finished the regular season with four losses in its last five games, the lone win a one-point victory at Wichita State. Even Connecticut lost four of its last five before winning five games in five days to capture the Big East tournament title.
During the week of the conference tournaments, Jerry Palm of www.collegerpi.com, Patrick Stevens of the Washington Times and I were among the few media members who projected that VCU would make the 68-team field as one of the final at-large selections. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi did not even have VCU on his “First Four Out” list entering the final weekend before Selection Sunday.
Dick Vitale, one of the critics of VCU’s inclusion in the field, said on Monday’s “Mike and Mike in the Morning” show that Smart should check his mail and expect a “beautiful fruit basket” from Vitale.
Just don’t call VCU and Butler on Cinderella teams. A Cinderella team doesn’t beat four power conference teams, as VCU did, by double digits. A Cinderella team doesn’t return several key players, as Butler did, from the team that came within a half-court shot of winning the national championship.
“Seeds are so overrated,” Self said after Sunday’s 10-point loss to VCU. “It’s about players. And their players could play for us any day. If we played shirts and skins today, you wouldn’t have much of a difference on players or how they look.”
In recent years, a team fortunate enough to retain a few future pros until they were upperclassmen would be a heavy favorite to win the national title. Connecticut in 2004, North Carolina in 2005 and 2009 and Florida in 2007 all followed similar recipes en route to national titles.
Now, if a program can keep just one future pro until he’s a junior — see Connecticut’s Walker — it becomes a national title contender when it gets hot at season’s end.
The days of power conference teams building a national title contender with the same core over years are long gone. Kentucky replaced a class of five first-round draft picks with heralded freshmen Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones. Connecticut rebounded from missing the NCAA tournament last season with a team that plays five freshmen in key roles.
The days of mid-major teams building a national title contender have arrived. Winning one is the next barrier for a mid-major to cross.