With all NCAA Tournament No. 1 seeds eliminated, parity is creating an ultimate March Madness
A little more than a decade ago, Miami (Fla.) was such a nondescript basketball program with no history and no hope that crowds of two or three thousand fans were commonplace despite playing in the powerful Atlantic Coast Conference.
Now the Hurricanes are one of the favorites to win a national championship after eliminating Houston.
San Diego State invested as much as it could to chase basketball relevance but could never crack through the glass ceiling of their Mountain West conference affiliation.
Now the Aztecs will have a chance to make the Final Four after knocking out No. 1 overall seed Alabama.
In a span of mere minutes Friday night, two programs that have had lots of good seasons but rarely seemed like they’re on the cusp of anything significant, evicted the last two No. 1 seeds left from this NCAA men's tournament.
And with those back-to-back results, this is officially the maddest March of them all.
For the first time in the history of the tournament, we don’t have a No. 1 seed in the Elite Eight.
Instead we have Florida Atlantic, a program that didn’t exist until 1988 and has had a losing record in 13 of the last 21 years. And have Kansas State, a program that fired Bruce Weber last March after going 34-58 over a three-year stretch and was picked to finish last in the Big 12 this season.
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After a regular season where the buzzword every week was parity, this tournament has lived up to the hype and then some.
For all the talk we’ve heard about the growing gap between rich and poor in college sports, complaints about the transfer portal and the potential competitive imbalance brought upon by athletes profiting off name, image and likeness, this tournament is telling a different story.
And the moral is that anyone can win in this sport. Who in their right mind would have a problem with that?
College basketball isn't what it was in the 1980s, and it’s never going to be. The best players aren’t going to stay in school for three or four years, the skill level and athleticism isn’t going to ever measure up to the NBA, and the regular season is pretty much an afterthought in the greater sports landscape.
If your appeal is going to be all about the tournament, might as well make it the most gripping, delightful and surprising event in all of sports. And right now, it’s delivering at a level we’ve never seen.
Sure, there have been first-round upsets forever. For the last 15 years, getting the odd Virginia Commonwealth or Loyola Chicago in the Final Four has become more common. And every now and then, we get a true surprise champion.
But in the big picture, college basketball has never been more even across the board. Among the final eight, we have teams representing the Big East, Conference USA, the West Coast Conference, the Mountain West, the ACC and the Big 12. But perhaps more notable is who we’re missing.
Despite getting a combined 16 bids to the tournament, the SEC and the Big Ten are already gone. The irony of that should be clear to anyone who follows college sports and has watched those two leagues separate themselves financially thanks to football-fueled television contracts showering them with tens of millions more than their competitors. The disparity has grown so great, there’s long-term concern within the industry about those two leagues potentially breaking away from everyone else and eventually doing their own thing.
This year, at least in basketball, that would be a pretty lonely tournament. And it wouldn’t reflect what’s actually happening in the sport, where fears about NIL and the transfer portal making the rich richer haven’t panned out at all.
If anything, the talent has been spread out even more. With the opportunity to make money off marketing deals, a certain tier of good college players has been incentivized to stay in school longer rather than try to make it in the NBA as a second-round pick or sign a contract in Europe. And with so much player movement through transfers, teams can get good very quickly and stay good longer.
There may be no better example of all those factors than Miami, which made a surprise run to last year’s Elite Eight. With a couple key guys returning including Isaiah Wong, the Hurricanes added Nijel Pack via transfer from Kansas State (and, reportedly, a highly lucrative NIL deal) and big man Norchad Omier from Arkansas State.
Sorry, but there’s no divine right for North Carolina and Kentucky to win every year. You have to adapt to the structure of the sport, and it’s healthy from a competitive standpoint to see a program without a long track record of success like Miami get rewarded for being on the cutting edge.
“I do not think that it's going to change,” Connecticut coach Dan Hurley said. "I think this is probably just the new normal and you can't rest on your laurels as a university or as a basketball program because you have a rich history or tradition. This game has changed.”
This isn’t college football, where the barriers to entry among the elite are too high for most programs to realistically reach. Maybe not all 350-plus programs in Division I basketball can aspire to make a Final Four, but the idea that they can all have one shining moment — and not just in the first round of the tournament — is thriving more than ever before.
College basketball isn’t perfect, but thanks to unmatched parity, it’s delivering a nearly perfect product in March. The four No. 1 seeds may be gone, but the sense that anything can happen on a given day in this event has never been more alive.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: March Madness ruling NCAA Tournament as parity wipes out No. 1 seeds