Harvard and North Dakota State University do not seem to have much in common, especially if you ask people from Harvard. But last week they were both members of college basketball's middle class, living out a basketball American Dream. They pulled off NCAA tournament upsets in the same building, Spokane Arena, twin highlights of a weekend filled with highlights.
The tournament is more popular than ever. TV ratings are up, averaging 9.2 million viewers opening weekend, a 4% increase from 2013. Fans are talking about brackets—not just their own, but President Obama's and the nonexistent perfect one that would have won Warren Buffett's $1 billion challenge.
It is hard to believe that a few years ago the NCAA tournament was losing some appeal. But it's true. The best players skipped college altogether. The sport was considered hopelessly corrupt and fading at least a little from the national consciousness. The NCAA tournament was still fun, but not as much as it had been.
What spurred the comeback? Like a great tournament finish, it was the result of both planning and luck.
In 2006--07 the NBA instituted an age minimum of 19 (or one year after a player's high school class graduates), ushering in the one-and-done era. Most coaches hate the trend because it puts revolving doors on their programs. Many argue that it has contributed to cheating—agents recruiting high school kids and steering them to agent-friendly college coaches for a year of babysitting. Still, while one-and-done may be bad for college basketball as an institution, it has done wonders for the sport's marquee event.
Fans get to see future NBA stars in the tournament, giving the event a luster it lacked a decade ago. But because they are freshmen, their teams are vulnerable against underdog opponents with more experience. We saw that last week, when 14th-seeded Mercer—with its five senior starters—frustrated Duke phenom Jabari Parker the same way Stanford's juniors and seniors stopped Kansas frosh Andrew Wiggins. Since 2007 only one underclassman has won the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player award: Kentucky's Anthony Davis, three years ago.
In 2011 the tournament expanded from 65 teams to 68. That was controversial, and perhaps not fair to some teams that are forced into a "play-in" game before the rest of the tournament begins. But two of the play-in games (the NCAA calls them first-round games) eliminate two of the worst automatic qualifiers. Getting rid of those teams on Tuesday and Wednesday means more potential upsets on Thursday and Friday.
Also in 2011, every tournament game was televised in its entirety for the first time, and also streamed live. Fans are no longer prisoners of TV directors, or even of the regions where they live. They can watch the best game, no matter who is playing. A serious college basketball fan with the choice of four tournament games on his screen need worry about nothing more than getting wing sauce on the remote control or the keyboard.
Meanwhile, the earthquakes that have rocked college sports in the last decade did not shake the tournament at all. Conference realignment has messed with traditional rivalries such as Kansas-Missouri and Texas--Texas A&M, but the tournament's appeal was never built on rivalries. We love the tournament because it matches the Big Guy against the Little Guy, and there will always be Big Guys and Little Guys. Seeds, not revenue, tell us who should win. This year Creighton was a No. 3 seed and Nebraska was an 11. That the Cornhuskers receive Big Ten TV largesse is irrelevant.
The quality of play in college basketball is not as high as it was in the 1980s or '90s, when the best players stuck around. (Shaquille O'Neal averaged 27.6 points, 14.7 rebounds and five blocks as an LSU sophomore—then returned. Imagine that.) But the tournament is not about the best basketball. The NBA has better players. March Madness is about tense basketball and compelling story lines.
If there was a moment that captured the new tournament, it was when Syracuse freshman Tyler Ennis fired up two late shots against Dayton. Ennis's bright NBA future didn't matter. Neither did Syracuse's move from the Big East to the ACC. All that mattered was that Ennis missed and that the Flyers shocked the Orange. As sports fans say this time of year: A No. 11 beat a No. 3. After all these years, March math remains irresistible.
"It's hard to believe that a few years ago the NCAA tournament was losing some appeal. It was fun, but not as much as it had been.
Winners & Losers
The Case for
Faces in the Crowd
Number of games it took to eliminate all entries in Warren Buffett's $1 billion bracket challenge. The odds of a flawless bracket are 9.2 quintillion to 1.
Straight wins for San Diego State when leading with five minutes remaining. The Aztecs' latest victory came over North Dakota State, 63--44, as senior point guard Xavier Thames scored or assisted on 71% of his team's points.
Overtime games last Thursday, the most on a single day in NCAA tournament history. A fifth OT game on Friday pushed this year's event to within striking distance of the record for a whole tournament, seven, set in 1995 and '97.
Winning percentage in the round of 64 for No. 12 seeds since 2010—that includes this year's victories by Harvard (over Cincinnati), North Dakota State (Oklahoma) and Stephen F. Austin (VCU).
FOULS CALLED IN THE GONZAGA--OKLAHOMA STATE GAME, SEVEN SHORT OF THE TOURNAMENT RECORD, SET IN A 1956 MATCHUP BETWEEN IOWA AND MOREHEAD STATE. THREE COWBOYS FOULED OUT, AND THE TEAM WAS WHISTLED FOR 33 FOULS EN ROUTE TO A 85--77 LOSS.
SIMON BRUTY/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (GOLLON)
Big Moments (left to right) Mercer's Jakob Gollon, Harvard's Wesley Saunders and Stanford's Chasson Randle played out underdog story lines.
ROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (SAUNDERS)
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DAVID E. KLUTHO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (RANDLE)
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ANDREW HARRER/BLOOMBERG/GETTY IMAGES (BUFFETT)
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (THAMES)
TEMNIY/GETTY IMAGES (HOURGLASS)
ROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (NORTH DAKOTA STATE PLAYER)
TALAJ/GETTY IMAGES (WHISTLE)