Conference catch-up: The Others
Even as the power brokers of the sport continue to dominate legislation and the system continued to favor the big boys, college basketball success is becoming available to more and more “outsiders.” Last season, Gonzaga reached No. 1 in the national polls for the first time, and yet another outsider — Wichita State — reached the Final Four. Starting with George Mason’s glass ceiling-shattering appearance in 2006, teams from outside the major conferences have made the Final Four a total of five times in eight seasons.
More schools are getting ambitious and retaining coaches with better pay, drawing them closer to major programs that have to split budget with football. Programs like Butler and Xavier now are more part of the establishment, but others are coming. This season should once again see “outsiders” make a significant impact, even when talent and depth at the best programs is extremely high.
I discussed this in some length in March when the Big East news broke and Gonzaga was the national story, but like with any major-college athletics success, advancement for outsiders has come with significant monetary investment. Gonzaga and Xavier poured money into new facilities; Butler is renovating its historic gym to modernize it. Those schools and others, because they don’t have to support scholarship football, have been able to sink an increasing percentage of their overall athletics budgets into men’s basketball, understanding the opportunity available to use that platform to build greater national awareness for their schools. Schools like Wichita State (20% of overall 2012 budget) and VCU (17%) are surging and have some room to take that next financial step. Others will likely try to follow in the footsteps already established, although the outrageous amount of money available from the new college football playoff may reduce the arbitrage a bit.
It’s hard not to look at Wichita State and think the Shockers have a chance to double up on deep NCAA tournament runs. They bring back a wealth of talent from last season’s Final Four team, and assuming guys like Ron Baker and Evan Wissel don’t again miss huge chunks of the regular season, they should be extremely tough from November on forward. It also seems like too many people are writing off Gonzaga. The Bulldogs won’t be No. 1 in the country this season, but that’s a false expectation to set based on last year’s historically good (and frontcourt-loaded) team. Just because the Zags will be more guard oriented this season doesn’t mean they won’t again be very good, or that the remaining guys in the frontcourt won’t be pretty solid themselves.
In terms of true national impact, the biggest story may be Harvard, which has the deepest and most talented roster in the league’s Academic Index era (dating back to the early 1980s). Returning nearly everyone from last season’s Round of 32 team, the Crimson add back both guard Brandyn Curry and forward Kyle Casey after an academic scandal forced them to sit out last season, as well as heralded freshman big man Zena Edosomwan. They have the frontcourt quality of a good major-conference program, numerous perimeter shooters and two quality potential lead guards with Curry and last year’s starter, now sophomore Siyani Chambers. The Crimson’s schedule won’t provide them with many national opportunities to impress, but they should win enough games to stay in the rankings discussion all season as people try to figure out just how good they really are.
Three Big Questions
1) Will an outsider make the Final Four again?
Once is a fluke, but is five times in eight seasons a trend? The vagaries of the NCAA tournament make it impossible to project that any certain team will make it, but collectively, there’s a pretty decent chance someone can. It will be interesting to see how the new NCAA seeding rules will impact this trend. The way the rules have changed should limit the number of mid-on-mid games in the Round of 64. Whether that’s good or bad for the outsiders is yet to be seen, as the other way at least pushed teams into the next round by default.
2) Who is the next program to make the leap from this category?
VCU seems like the popular choice, with a quality program, highly regarded coach and style of play that makes it appealing in the medium-term as well as now. The Atlantic 10 looked like a great move a year ago, but now stripped of Xavier, Temple and Butler, it has far less appeal. Wichita State has a great fan base, but may still be better off as the big dog in the Missouri Valley now that Creighton has moved on. With the Big East supposedly looking at options like Saint Louis and others, there may be nowhere realistic for them to go. Gonzaga has proven you can make this approach work, too.
3) How many conferences in this category should be multi-bid?
The West Coast Conference has a solid chance, with BYU looking pretty decent behind Gonzaga. The Missouri Valley should have enough quality to squeeze a second bid, maybe with Indiana State as the primary guess on Team No. 2. Without a conference tournament, an Ivy at-large is really difficult to achieve, but if Harvard rips through most of its nonconference schedule and somehow drops a couple league games and doesn’t win the auto bid, it could be an interesting discussion. The new C-USA has 16 teams, but no anchor, and if they couldn’t regularly get two teams in with Memphis there…