The Establishment is under attack
As we move toward the most improbable Final Four ever, it's time to ask a few simple questions:
What the hell just happened?
Is this evolution (or perhaps devolution) good for the game of college basketball?
And if bigger has been better for the Big Dance, do we dare entertain going biggest?
These are the questions I've asked myself repeatedly since watching this NCAA tournament go off the rails to an astonishing degree. We've disposed of every No. 1 and No. 2 seed before the Final Four for the first time. We've brought the highest seed total ever to the last weekend, with a No. 11 (VCU), a No. 8 (Butler), a No. 4 (Kentucky) and a No. 3 (Connecticut) serving as the closing quartet. We are assured of crowning a national champion who was not even an undisputed league champion.
"We all thought this year was wide open," said my friend Rick Bozich of The (Louisville) Courier-Journal, who will be in Houston covering his 30th Final Four. "But nobody thought it would be this ridiculous."
So let's parse the ridiculousness and see what it all means.
Question 1: Does this total upheaval represent a sea change in the game?
Answer: I believe it does. I believe The Establishment has lost some of its death grip on this sport. I believe the jarring sight of two schools, one whose football program doesn't play in the Football Bowl Subdivision, the other without a football program altogether, who don't enjoy lavish conference television revenue and exposure, and don't recruit at the Hamburger All-American drive-thru is not an aberration.
But it's been coming for a while.
From 1979 -- the first year the NCAA publicly seeded the field -- through 2005, there was a single Final Four Cinderella. That was Pennsylvania in '79, a No. 9 seed out of the Ivy League. There were other long-shot seeds -- LSU in 1986 as an 11, and a bunch of others as 8s -- but they were all from The Establishment. There are a couple of other programs from the wrong side of the tracks that made it big -- Indiana State and Massachusetts crashed the Final Four in 1979 and '96, respectively -- but both had a transformational future NBA star leading them.
So just one Cinderella in 27 Final Fours. Now we have four in the past six.
You could call it the George Mason revolution, if you wish. When the 11th-seeded Patriots and their roster of unspectacular veterans made the '06 Final Four out of the Colonial Athletic Association, it might have sparked a real belief at mid-major schools everywhere that we, too, could do what they did.
Since then, Butler has gone twice in succession -- the second time without a sure-thing NBA player, after having lottery pick Gordon Hayward last year. A program that has been good for more than a decade has taken the next step and become a national power.
And now VCU has copied the George Mason blueprint, right down to seeding, conference affiliation and team makeup. Four of the Rams' top five scorers are seniors, with one junior.
In an increasingly youthful sport, don't discount the power of experience. VCU has it. Butler does, too, with leading scorer and rebounder Matt Howard having played in 139 college games, and No. 2 scorer Shelvin Mack in 106.
"The term 'parity' is an interesting term in college basketball," Butler coach Brad Stevens said. "You're comparing two different things. You're comparing budgets and then you're comparing teams that are on the court. Only five guys play in basketball at a time. You may have 13 McDonald's All-Americans, but you can only play five at once. As deep as you are and everything else, you still have to play and be good with those five, and they have to play as a team.
"I think that's something that VCU, Butler, teams that have made these runs, they really understand that. They're trying to better their programs in a lot of ways; we're all trying to maximize our resources that are available, and hopefully continue to grow in that area.
"But at the end of the day, it's about playing."
But as well as those veteran teams have played in raising their programs to this level, the bigger issue might be that The Establishment programs have gotten worse. The best players come and go too quickly -- and often are hard to coach for the brief period of time they're in school.
"As we started to have kids leave earlier and earlier, I think what it's done there's been less and less power teams," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. "I said all year there's some terrific basketball teams -- Pitt, Ohio State, Kansas, etc. But they may not be a great team. If it's not a great team, it opens up the field for everybody else."
Ten years ago, Duke won the national title with five future NBA players -- Shane Battier, Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy, Chris Duhon and Jay Williams. All but Williams have had long pro careers, and he would have if not for a career-ending motorcycle accident. That Duke team beat Arizona -- led by future NBA stars Richard Jefferson and Gilbert Arenas -- in the final.
This year? There might not be five NBA players in the entire Final Four. ESPN draft analyst Chad Ford has exactly that many in his current top 60 prospects -- Terrence Jones, Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb of Kentucky; Kemba Walker of UConn; and Mack of Butler, who squeezes in at No. 59.
It stands to reason that experienced teams filled with good players can compete with inexperienced teams carried by one or two very good players. Regardless of conference affiliation or program profile.
"One thing as far as small schools [go]," Calhoun said. "If they have five really good players and a pretty good bench, there's no such thing as a small school in the sport of basketball."
Question 2: Is the Final Four blue-blood-dependent?
Answer: At least partly.
Consider this: What if Princeton had closed out Kentucky instead of losing by two in the first round? And Washington had not succumbed late to North Carolina? And San Diego State had beaten UConn? What if the Final Four consisted of VCU, Butler, Washington and San Diego State?
CBS execs would be chugging cyanide, that's what. It would have been a ratings debacle.
People tune in for the Yankees and Red Sox, the Packers and Steelers, the Lakers and Celtics. In college football, they'll flock to Ohio State and USC. In college hoops, eyeballs follow Kentucky and North Carolina and Duke and Kansas.
According to TV ratings, we enjoy Cinderella stories -- but not as much as we enjoy watching blue bloods.
Perhaps it's because they already have huge fan bases. Or perhaps it's because there's a belief that we're seeing true high-quality teams when the name brands make the scene.
(Quite honestly, when the ninth-place team in the Big East is joined in Houston by the fourth-place team from the CAA and a team that lost to Youngstown State, there's a strong suspicion that we could start the tournament all over again next week and get an entirely different Final Four. In some ways, this is more of a Final Fluke.)
In recent times, the Final Four has provided blue-blood appeal on an amazingly consistent basis. At least one of the six programs I rank as the best of all time -- UCLA, North Carolina, Kentucky, Indiana, Kansas, Duke -- has been present at every Final Four since 1985. Having at least one big dog around has been good for business.
That's a long run of dependence upon marquee names. If it had come to a complete halt this year, casual fans probably would have written off the Final Four -- and would be more likely than ever to declare the sport diminished beyond recognition.
So although the right half of the bracket holds the romance, the left half holds the viewer appeal. That's why the Kentucky-Connecticut game is the second of the two Saturday, played in prime time for the entire nation.
But here's a caveat: A mix-and-match title game of blue blood and upstart also could be ratings gold. Last year's Duke-Butler championship matchup was the most-watched college basketball game of the current century.
Just a guess here that CBS is praying for a Kentucky-Butler final Monday night.
Question 3: Should the NCAA tournament expand some more?
Answer: Maybe so. And I can't believe I'm saying that.
For 25 years, I have been convinced that a 64-team tournament was perfection. And I've ripped the idea of expansion at every opportunity.
But expanding to 68 this year almost certainly made it possible for VCU to participate -- and dominate. If the Rams could do what they did, who's to say that Colorado, Alabama or Virginia Tech didn't deserve a shot?
So maybe 72 would be a better number. Or even the dreaded 96 that coaches have been pushing for.
Or, if we're going to go that far, why not just blow up the model and let everyone in?
It's heretical, I know. It would be a logistical nightmare. It might turn the regular season into something as meaningless as a season of "Jersey Shore."
But maybe it's time to rethink the entire enterprise. Maybe the lesson to be learned from this turbulent tournament is that inclusion is good. Maybe more teams would seize the opportunity presented to them.
There are 345 Division I men's basketball teams in America. Surely some savant can draw up a bracket for that.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.