By: Brett Dickinson and Barry Kamen
BD: Barry, it was an exciting start to the the NCAA Tournament, where we saw a lot of upsets and overtime games. Several mid-major teams made big strides in beating big conference NCAA tournament stalwarts, including Ohio State downed by Dayton, North Dakota State ousting Oklahoma, Harvard knocking off Cincinnati and Mercer beating DUKE!. The question is do you have confidence in any of lower seeds making a serious run and who are you predicting to be the ‘Cinderella’ of this March Madness ball?
BK: The first full day of March Madness was one for the ages. The first game (Dayton-Ohio State) provided a back-and-forth game that ended with Georgetown transfer Vee Sanford taking Aaron Craft to task to hit the game-winner with just under 4 seconds left. I watched just a fraction of the 12 hours of college basketball on Thursday, but with numerous nail-biters and 4 overtime games, my heart and wallet are the biggest winner of the tournament thus far.
What makes the tournament so enjoyable is seeing the country rally around an underdog take down the big schools. We were all captivated by George Mason’s run to the Final Four; Butler, Virginia Commonwealth, and Florida Gulf Coast have all seen their bandwagon’s grow for a few weeks in March and April. No one will soon forget Shaka Smart taking the Rams from the First Four to the Final Four, or when Sherwood Brown and “Dunk City” became the first ever #15 seed to reach the Sweet 16.
My choice for this year’s Cinderella is North Dakota State. The school boasts the best FCS football program in the country, but the Bison basketball team is proving that the school is more than just a one-sport power. After defeating #5 Oklahoma in overtime Thursday night, North Dakota State prepares for a weak #4 seed in San Diego State, who nearly blew a double digit against #13 New Mexico State. In their win versus Oklahoma, the Bison were boosted by 28 points from Lawrence Alexander, who averaged just over 10 PPG during the regular season. If North Dakota State’s stars Marshall Bjorklund (13.4 PPG) and Taylor Braun (18 PPG, 43% 3PT) play to the level which they are capable of, San Diego State and #1 Arizona should brace themselves for a difficult game and prepare an exit speech.
I mentioned a number of different mid-majors who have stolen our hearts over the years, but none have been able to get over the hump and actually win the national title (the closest that I can remember was Gordon Hayward for Butler, narrowly missing a 60 footer against Duke). There is no question that the gap between the mid-majors and the major conferences is closing. Brett, will the day come where we will see a mid-major win the national championship, and if so, how far away are we from seeing that day?
BD: First of all, their has been a mid-major that has won a title in our lifetime (well maybe just my lifetime since you are basically still a toddler right?): UNLV in 1990. Many don’t lump them into the conversation because they had three NBA players in their starting lineup (Larry Johnson, Greg Anthony, Stacey Augmon). But that team came from a small school, in a small basketball conference, probably starting the whole mid-major craze.
The problem I see coming ahead for mid-majors is the NBA age limit actually helping big time programs, weakening the chances of VCUs and Butlers and George Masons of the NCAA tournament. Especially if the rule is changed, forcing two years of post high school, before eligibility for the draft. It would take away the key advantage that those Cinderella teams have over the big conferences; experienced rosters. If every team is now filled with upperclassmen, all the sudden the teams with the most talent and top recruits are more likely to succeed.
So I think if any team were to do it, it would have to come within the next couple seasons. A senior filled roster, with tons of NCAA Tournament experience (with at least one run past the Sweet 16) and a strong defensive-minded coach could topple the big schools on their way to a national title. That formula sounds eerily like this year’s undefeated Wichita State team.
I didn’t pick them in my bracket, but they are a No. 1 seed, while virtually their entire roster is intact from last season’s Final Four run. It should NOT be a surprise if they are the best team in country. After watching the consensus favorites in their region in No. 4 Louisville struggle against Manhattan and No. 3 Duke lose to Mercer, it may be March Madness to pick against them at this point…right?