Dueling underdogs could signal new era
Posted March 30, 2011
Call it the Year of the Underdog.
This weekend's Final Four will be historic in a number of ways. With no team seeded higher than No. 3, this will be the lowest-seeded grouping ever in a Final Four. And, as an 11-seed, Virginia Commonwealth ties George Mason (2006) and LSU (1984) as the lowest-seeded team ever to make it this far.
But it doesn't stop there. The Butler-VCU matchup will, at the least, produce the lowest seed ever in the finals as well. UCLA (1980) and Villanova (1985) were both #8 seeds, so Butler would tie them -- and VCU would blast the record into infinity.
I don't think this is any great coincidence. College basketball is enjoying its most widespread parity in history. So-called "mid-majors" are able to challenge "high-majors" with regularity now, and that is not likely to end any time soon.
While it's true the traditional power schools tend to win recruiting battles for the truly elite players, those "superstars" don't last very long. We need only look down I-40 to see that in action as Duke (Kyrie Irving) and Carolina (Harrison Barnes) await decisions from their talented freshman stars.
Mid-majors are able to engage in "program-building" in ways their larger foes are not normally able to do. This is not to say the mid-majors are at advantage -- there isn't a college basketball coach in this county that would turn down a chance to have Irving or Barnes on their team -- but it makes for an interesting set of circumstances.
High-majors used to have their cake and eat it too, so to speak. They brought in the top players and kept them for 3-4 years. But gone are the days of Dean Smith having to convince James Worthy and Michael Jordan to turn pro, and gone are the days of Coach K being able to count on Grant Hill and Christian Laettner lasting through their senior seasons. Great players leave. It's a fact.
It's hard enough to win a national championship in the first place, but the power teams now have shorter championship windows. Georgetown had four years of Patrick Ewing back in the 1980's -- and they were dominant -- but the Hoyas' only title came in the big guy's junior season. it's doubtful a player like that would be around that long in today's game.
So with the elites trying to "time" their title runs, it creates a bit of a vacuum for other teams to rush into. Butler and VCU are proof positive that well-coached teams with good systems have create havoc in the tournament regardless of seeding. They're making March Madness just a little bit madder, and I think it's great.