Small schools, big game

Upsets could be good fit since Cinderellas abound

Ncaa Tournament

March 23, 2006|By PAUL MCMULLEN | PAUL MCMULLEN,SUN REPORTER

The third round of the NCAA tournament begins this evening. That's meant midnight for Cinderella recently, but the more fairy tales there are to be told, the more likely one of those wishes will come true and the Final Four won't be another exclusive gathering of schools from the six conferences that have lorded over major college football.

Either Bradley or Memphis will play in the Oakland Regional final Saturday. On Sunday, George Mason or Wichita State will be looking to squeeze out one more upset in the Washington Regional final.

If any of the four or Gonzaga get to Indianapolis next weekend, it would be the first time since 1998 that the Final Four included a school not currently a member of the six conferences at the core of the Bowl Championship Series.

Using that parameter - which the expanded Big East did to trumpet the fact that 15 of its 16 members have gone to the Final Four - this Sweet 16 is the most wide-open the tournament has seen since 1985, when it expanded to 64 teams and began to include more at-large teams than conference champions.

Five of the 16 are from outside football's Bowl Championship Series conferences. The last time lower-profile teams had that kind of representation was in 1981, just two years after Pennsylvania, not just Indiana State and Larry Bird, got to the 1979 Final Four.

Even if Memphis is subtracted from the discussion, that leaves four teams from what are branded mid-major conferences.

On a CBS teleconference Tuesday, Billy Packer mentioned that in the 1970s, a majority of Sweet 16 teams were from smaller conferences. What Packer failed to add was that until 1975, only conference champions were invited. He scoffed at the notion that this is a major development, but in 2003, Butler was the lone outsider in the Sweet 16. It's news when the Missouri Valley Conference has more teams in the Sweet 16 than the Big Ten and Big 12 combined.

"They better be careful, or they might not invite us to their tournament," joked coach Phil Martelli of St. Joseph's, the only current non-BCS school to get to a regional final in the past three years. "Those [BCS] schools want for nothing. Their coaches, teams and boosters know when the Final Four is. We know when Selection Sunday is. College basketball is healthier than ever when you look at a Sweet 16 like this."

The Final Four could still bring an old guard of Connecticut, Duke, UCLA and Villanova, but for at least two more days, what's behind a 2006 NCAA tournament that hasn't been dominated by the establishment?

Scholarship limits: Dynasties can no longer stockpile talent.

Women's teams can award 15 scholarships. Because of gender equity, the men get only 13. From 2000 to 2004, the NCAA had a 5/8 rule, limiting teams to five scholarships per year and eight over a two-year period. Maybe we're seeing the ripple effect from that rule. Coaches change, players transfer, and it is not uncommon to see rosters with nine scholarship players.

NBA draft: Without the NBA, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Chris Paul would have been college upperclassmen this winter. Starting in June, the NBA will no longer draft high schoolers, but 10 of the 60 taken last year were U.S. prep players. The top four from North Carolina's NCAA title team all left with eligibility, and were among the first 14 picks.

Instead of having to defend Sean May in the pivot last Sunday, George Mason's veterans attacked freshman Tyler Hansbrough. While the Tar Heels had to reload, Wichita State put a fifth-year senior in the pivot.

"You feel the scholarship limits, and then the draft, spreading out the talent," said Towson coach Pat Kennedy, the past president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches. "Those two factors have contributed to a change that is not going to be fleeting. It used to be, only 20 teams could compete at the highest level. Then it was 40. Now it's 60."

Recruits grow: Almost 16 months ago, Maryland routed George Mason by 24 points and 6-foot-7 freshman forward Will Thomas looked frail and overmatched for the Patriots. Thomas has since developed both his body and game, and there are BCS schools regretting that they didn't grab him coming out of Mount St. Joseph two years ago.

"I thought he was under-recruited," Gaels coach Pat Clatchey said. "He got offers from the College of Charleston, Fordham, St. Bonaventure, that's about it. Will knows how to play the game, plus he's a throwback, who's willing to put in time to improve himself. He's put on about 10 pounds. He's a man right now. He had a lot of intangibles that people didn't see."

Scheduling: All five non-BCS schools still alive were rewarded by the NCAA for their nonconference schedules, which affected their Rating Percentage Index, a comparative tool.

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