For all the talk of college basketball’s brave new world, it suddenly looks a lot like the old one.
So anyone asking why the same dozen programs are still playing musical chairs at the Final Four every year — Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and Villanova this time around — would do well to recall how Willie Sutton answered the feds when they asked why he kept robbing banks: “Because that’s where the money is.”
Grit and gumption are great, but as the Saint Peter’s Peacocks were reminded in a hurry Sunday, they take you only so far. Yes, the Peacocks beat long odds and three bigger, much better-funded programs to book their Elite Eight spot opposite North Carolina. But the NCAA Tournament is nothing like the movie “Hoosiers.”
The Peacocks fell behind 7-0 after less than three minutes, 21-7 a few minutes after that and 69-49 when the final buzzer mercifully ushered them off the court.
“They hang their hat on punching teams in the mouth, being the underdog, that kind of thing,” North Carolina’s Leaky Black said. “We just had to let them know it wasn’t going to happen tonight.”
Or maybe ever.
College basketball’s powers that be, dragged into court and facing the threat of even more lawsuits, spent the last decade paying lip service to the idea of leveling the playing field. Because of the chaos wrought by the pandemic, players were granted an extra year of eligibility. And because of the transfer portal — a rough equivalent of free agency — more players than ever switched programs in the past few years.
All that movement should have benefitted mid-major programs, which recruit second-tier players and keep them longer, hoping that experience and teamwork can make up what they lack in talent and resources. Occasionally it does, mostly during the regular season and every so often, in the early rounds of the tournament. But as the games pile up, it’s not just the tough who get going, the talented ones do, too.
The rosters at Duke, North Carolina and Kansas are loaded with the kind of prospects, practice facilities and support staffs that would turn any NBA G League team green with envy, and they spend two to three times as much money — without paying players’ salaries. Villanova doesn’t have that kind of cache — yet — but after winning two national championships in the last five years, coach Jay Wright is closing both the talent and and budget gaps in a hurry.
Between them, those four schools have combined for 17 national titles and 61 Final Fours. So, improbable as Saint Peter’s run was, harder than grabbing a rung that high on the ladder is hanging on. To get a real sense of how hard, look at what happened to Miami.
The Hurricanes came in as a No. 10 seed with dreams of getting coach Jim Larrañaga back to the Final Four for the first time since he led 11th-seeded George Mason, a middling mid-major, on a memorable run in 2006. They sneaked past seventh-seeded USC, clobbered second-seeded Auburn and overpowered 11th-seeded Iowa State before running into Kansas and getting run over 76-50.
The Hurricanes’ reliable point guard, Charlie Moore, couldn’t have been more experienced, playing on his fourth team in five years — including two at Kansas. Their best scorer, Kameron McCrusty, a redshirt senior guard, joined Miami after two seasons at Big 12 rival Oklahoma. With Miami ahead by six points at halftime, a Final Four berth looked within reach.
“At halftime it was basically … kind of a challenge against us,” said Kansas’ Ochai Agbaji, a first-team All-American and likely NBA first-round pick. “We didn’t come this far to lay down or give up at this point.”
He wasn’t kidding. The Jayhawks came out red hot and ran up a 47-15 margin over the final 20 minutes, shooting 59.3% after the break and outrebounding 25-11.
“I’ve thought all along that this was a possibility,” coach Bill Self said afterward, referring to a fourth Final Four in his 19 seasons at Kansas. “But I’ve also thought all along that the margin for error wasn’t such where we could get loose and have it be a probability.”
Speaking of probability, that the Jayhawks return to the Final Four as the only top seed left in the field is more than a good omen. A No. 1 seed has won the past four national championships and 11 of the last 14.