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of the regular season — Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger, Brigham Young’s Jimmer Fredette and Duke’s Nolan Smith — have been replaced by the likes of more obscure, but invaluable players: Butler’s Matt Howard, VCU’s Joey Rodriguez, Kentucky’s Josh Harrellson and Connecticut’s Jeremy Lamb.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.