I can still recall where I was when 11th-seeded George Mason beat top-seeded Connecticut to reach the 2006 NCAA Final Four.
The living room of my childhood home. A Zenith television, 24 inches diagonal. Right hand coated in popcorn grease. Left hand clutching (and then choking) the remote control.
I can still recite the starters' names from memory: Tony Skinn, Folarin Campbell, Will Thomas, Jai Lewis, Lamar Butler....
I remember the trinity of powerhouse programs Jim Larranaga's team beat en route to Indianapolis: Michigan State, North Carolina, UConn.
Izzo. Williams. Calhoun.
But I'd forgotten, until now, the identity of the fourth team, the one George Mason vanquished in that year's Sweet 16 to set up the legendary Connecticut game.
Oh right, it was Wichita State.
Seven years later, the Shockers have their turn as Cinderella—only they aren't buying the fairy tale.
Ever since toppling top-seeded Gonzaga in the round of 32, Wichita State has been quick to dismiss the underdog label, opting instead for a "Play Angry" mantra that seems to indicate it feels overlooked rather than over-matched.
When a reporter dangled the C-word in front of coach Gregg Marshall after the Shockers' win over Ohio State in the Elite Eight, Marshall shot back:
“I don’t think we’re Cinderella at all. Cinderellas usually are done by this stage. If you get to this point, you can win the whole thing. You beat a No. 1 seed and a No. 2 seed ... I think Cinderella just found one glass slipper. I don’t think she found four.’’
Marshall's right. For all the lazy wordplay and tabloid-style headlines, there is nothing shocking about Wichita State's run to this year's Final Four.
The Shockers rose as high as 15th in the AP Poll this year, and they've been among the top mid-major programs for almost a decade running.
No one expects a team seeded ninth to make the Final Four, but no one is particularly surprised that this ninth seed was the one to break through—even if it has a funny-sounding nickname and comes from a funny-sounding conference.
When Wichita State trounced Ohio State last weekend, there was no frantic texting with friends or incredulous emails from dad. No one shouted down the digital mine shaft in wild disbelief. And no one spilled their popcorn on the futon.
George Mason was perhaps the greatest underdog sports story of my childhood. Wichita State is just another good team.
What happened in between is the story of college basketball over the past decade.
VCU made went from First Four to Final Four. Butler made back-to-back championship game appearances. Gonzaga rose to No. 1 in the AP Poll. Piece by piece, the hierarchy crumbled.
In light of recent history, feting Wichita State like it was some sort of doe-eyed miracle child would have felt wildly disingenuous, manufactured even.
So if the Shockers aren't a novelty, then what are they?
If anything, Gregg Marshall's team is yet another blunt reminder of that any team can win any game in the modern college basketball climate. Which in turn is a polite way of saying that good teams aren't as good as they used to be.
Don't get me wrong, the quality of mid-major basketball has improved.
Schools like Wichita State have a much wider recruiting reach than they did in prior generations. And the internationalization of basketball has no doubt deepened the talent pool in which they tread. It also helps that increased cash flow has allowed mid-majors to update their facilities and compensate their coaches in ways never before possible.
All this explains why mid-major programs are thriving.
What it won't tell is how high-major teams have regressed.
The implementation of the NBA's age limit—commonly known as the "one and done rule"—has changed the way top-tier programs recruit, and to an extent burdened them with the constant turnover that now accompanies top talent.
In some instances, highly touted freshmen—many of whom would have otherwise skipped straight to the NBA—have proven dominant, turning already-talent-laden teams into veritable wrecking balls. Think Kevin Love and Derrick Rose in 2008. Or Anthony Davis last year.
But there seems to be a boom and bust effect at play.
When blue-chip prospects don't quite pan out, they can temporarily paralyze otherwise powerful programs, choking the development of other key players and stalling team development. The result is that top-tier teams, on average, are no longer as dominant as they once were.
Take a look at the table below, which charts the average seeding of the teams in each Final Four, starting in 1985 when the field expanded to 64 teams.
|Year||Average Seed of Final Four Participant|
As you'll see, I highlighted each of the years where the average seeding of the final quartet exceeded four. In other words, years where upsets abounded.
In the 21 years before the one-and-done rule was implemented (2006), only once did the average seeding exceed four. In the eight years since, it's happened three times.
Clearly, something has changed. Both the suddenness and timing of the change tells me that it's not simply a matter of mid-majors gradually improving their stock.
The playing field has leveled because the teams at the bottom are better, and because the teams at the top are worse. One and done explains the latter.
The obvious question then is what does this mean for college basketball?
I used to be among those who thought greater parity was a benefit. More upsets. Closer games. Greater volatility.
But the reaction—or lack of reaction—to Wichita State's Final Four run reveals the folly of my thinking.
Close games, big upsets and wild year-to-year swings aren't nearly as exciting when they happen with regularity.
Without Goliath, there can be no David.
And in years like this—where no dominant freshmen rise above the fray—what we're left with is a startling paucity of Goliaths.
I don't mean any of this to sound fatalistic. College basketball is, and will always be, a fantastic source of entertainment. These smaller questions of competitive balance are relatively nitpicky.
Still, I couldn't help but feel like the ho-hum vibe surrounding a ninth-seeded Final Four team said something about the state of the sport.
And I couldn't help but feel like the something it said was a bit more bleak in tone than many of us would care to admit.