Monday, March 27, 2006

Cinderella Stories will become the norm...

George Mason has stormed into the Final Four, capturing the imaginations of sports fans all over the country. Upsets happen every year, a double digit seed always sneaks into the Sweet Sixteen and sometimes teases us by advancing into that Elite Eight, but reality always brings us back down to Earth and the Final Four rarely entertains the team wearing the Cinderella slipper.

George Mason clawed through stiff competition, breaking through to the Final Four by beating a top seeded Connecticut team that was favored to win the whole tournament. Every team George Mason faced was ranked higher than they were but they won each game convincingly. They didn't sneak past sleep-walking giants to get to Indy, they played solid basketball and exploited each foes weaknesses with expert precision. They even suffered a let down against UConn when they allowed the Huskies to tie the game, but instead of folding under the pressure they stood tall and won a game most teams would have lost in the overtime period.

Some experts are taking a little bit away from George Mason by pointing out the fact that this tournament field was exceptionally young and rather inexperienced. The teams weren't very deep and the mid majors had a better chance to dominate this year because the rest of the NCAA has been decimated by the early entries the NBA has whisked away. These analysts think that George Mason's miraculous run is a fluke.

There's something to that argument. Gone are the days that Duke, UConn and North Carolina will start the same five players two or three years in a row. Players are going to leave early. The fact that the NBA is so hungry for young talent will actually encourage more players to sign with the mid-majors in hopes of getting more playing time. The NBA is requiring all players to wait a year after high school before being eligible for the draft so the NCAA won't be losing marquee talent right out of high school, but those top notch players aren't going to be enamored by the legacy of the traditional powers. They'll look for schools that are promising immediate playing time. Many of those players will probably stay close to home.

It's no fluke. The playing field is leveled and the mid majors hold the advantage because they are used to having to play by the players' rules. They've had to make exceptions and change plans in midstream. It's the Duke's and North Carolina's of the world who will struggle. Talent is already diluted, there's not that much separating the teams anymore. The best players in the game get snatched up by the NBA leaving teams trying to rebuild. The advantage goes to the teams that recruit players who need to develop or the teams who embrace the one and done star. As the big teams struggle to adjust to a recruiting climate that has players looking at college as a one year delay in their quest for glory, guys like Coach K aren't going to capitulate and the top players will opt to play for a program that embraces their presence for one season.

The selection committee will still give credit to the old guard and the traditional powers will remain in top seeds, but upsets will become the norm. A number 1 seed doesn't mean what it used to. The fact that there are no number 1 seeds remaining in this year's tournament speaks volumes as to how the shift in power has already begun.

Some see it as an aberration. They claim that this is a down year and that the power conferences and traditional contenders will hold sway for years to come. That's not true. The fact is, this is the tip of the iceberg and the big name programs will see themselves frozen out of the tournament more and more each year.

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