Coming up on the eve of the Final Four, the news around college basketball seems to be more focused on player and coach movement than the teams that are still playing for the sport’s biggest prize. The landscape around college basketball and sports has changed drastically with NIL deals and the transfer portal. Those two things have me pondering if this last tournament was Cinderella’s last dance in March.
For years, many sports fans have claimed that the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is the most exciting sporting event of the year. The first Thursday and Friday of the tournament is celebrated as a national holiday for many sports fanatics, including myself. I have not attended work or school on those two days since I was old enough to drive. There is something magical about watching win or go home sporting events while most people are still grinding out their workdays. Teams entire seasons are on the line while some people are fighting over the copier. Plus, the one and done scenario of the NCAA tournament means that anything can happen.
Personally, I think that too much emphasis gets put on the NCAA tournament by fans as a measuring stick of a team and program’s success. It’s not a fair measuring stick to play over 30 games, only to have your season and ‘coaching ability’ judge by a potentially bad matchup or off night in the first weekend. Teams that win conference championships or 20 games over the course of the season are deemed as disappointments because they can’t win two more games against really good teams in the tournament, while teams that may have had disappointing, uneven, or under-the-radar seasons advance past the first weekend and suddenly have fans celebrating their success. Win or go home scenarios really ignite the passion of fanbases, and for the same reason they ignite storylines and fairytales, hence the term, Cinderella.
Following selection Sunday, experts and fanatics spend hours analyzing the brackets and making predictions. We all know that upsets are going to happen, and most people get pretty bold in claiming to identify when and where they’re going to happen, cue Seth Davis. It’s almost a given that a 12 seed will beat a 5 every year, and it’s becoming less and less shocking to see 13, 14, and even 15 seeded teams win games. However, to be given the term ‘Cinderella’, a team needs to find a way to advance past that first weekend. Almost anything can happen in a given game, but can a team get both magic slippers to fit and keep dancing into the Sweet Sixteen? Those that can get remembered for ages by their alumni and by fans of the sport. And somehow, the last three NCAA tournaments we’ve seen the first ever 16 seed win and a 15 seed has made the Sweet Sixteen both years, and now an Elite Eight.
It has been 9 years since “Dunk City.” 9…years! However, I’m not even going to mention the name of the university that became the first 15 seed to ever advance to the Sweet Sixteen because all basketball fans know and remember like it was yesterday. 15 seeds don’t get nicknames, those are given to the blue-bloods that make national headlines each year and deep tournament runs like Phi-Slamma-Jamma, Forty Minutes of Hell, The Flyin’ Illini, or The Fab Five. Yet, teams like Dunk City are what make the NCAA tournament so capitivating. That squad did something that had never been done before, and will forever be immortalized in NCAA tournament lore.
Cinderella destroys the brackets that most spend hours laboring over to try and capture perfection, but she’s why we watch. We’re all aware that teams like St. Peter’s, Oral Roberts, and UMBC would have a losing record if they played in a power conference, but if they can find a way to win 1 game, or even two in 72 hours, they get remembered forever. It’s why people tune in. When the men are tearing up their brackets and cursing about lost wages, the wives comment on how Cinderella’s coach looks, their mascot, or their uniforms. The girl in your office that hasn’t watched a second of basketball all year suddenly is hated by everyone for a day because she is the only one that made the bold prediction based off of names, colors, or someone that she didn’t like that went to the higher seeded school and she wanted their team to lose.
Cinderella can come out at any moment those first two days. She can dance while people are in a mid-afternoon meeting at work, picking your kids up from a school activity, or after you’ve fallen asleep because you’ve got work the next day. However, when she does come out to dance, everyone suddenly is mesmerized by her. By the weekend, everyone knows who you are and is checking your invitation. If those teams can somehow win a second game, they now get nearly a full week of media attention shined on their program and school. Intrigued kids start to Google or wonder where schools like Oral Roberts, St. Peter’s, Loyola Marymount, or George Mason are located. As the stories unfold, most of those teams have one similar trait, upperclassmen.
A dangerous team in the NCAA tournament is a team of older, physically mature, and experienced players that have had to work hard without the spotlight for years. Those players and teams have developed an edge and continuity that a lot of programs that continually go after highly ranked prep stars and rely on underclassmen in the tournament don’t always have. Those teams will often play an entire season knowing that their only hope of even playing in the NCAA tournament is by winning their conference’s automatic bid. They have literally had to survive and advance just to get a chance to be in the spotlight. Yet, because they have the upperclassmen, they have been through that experience before and are more physically capable of hanging around than some other teams.
Once the NCAA tournament games tip, everyone in the arena is hoping that they can say they were there when one of the greatest moments in tournament history occurred. The only people rooting for the heavy favorites are the ones wearing the same colors as the team they’re cheering for on the court. Everyone else is getting behind the underdog. The longer they hang around, the more palpable the moment becomes. For the favorite, the longer they can’t shake the underdog it becomes less about winning and more about not losing. Each round Cinderella dances, the stakes become higher and higher, and the pressure even bigger. Eventually, the clock strikes midnight on our favorite Cinderella’s. Just as we get to know and fall in love with them, they get eliminated. The inequity in talent or the inability to make shots like they did the game before always seems to serve as a reminder that Cinderella came from humble circumstances, and eventually must return to them.
With today’s NIL deals and the transfer portal, I’m wondering if St. Peter’s is going to be the last great Cinderella story that we will be able to get behind in the NCAA men’s tournament. After years of being taken advantage of for lucrative TV revenues, student athletes now have the ability to make money off playing basketball games hours away from campus that end not much before midnight, causing them to arrive back home in the early morning hours, only to be expected in class less than twelve hours after walking off a court hours away from their classroom. I think the players deserve some sort of compensation for everything they endure and generate for the schools they play for. However, now NIL’s are almost like free agent contracts. Why would I stay at Murray State and play for next to nothing when I can transfer to Xavier and walk into a steady revenue stream? I arbitrarily chose those schools, but they’ve had about the same amount of recent on court succes recently. However, one program plays in a good-sized American city in front of sell-out crowds, while the other plays in mostly empty arenas all year.
Will we ever see another Ja Morant or Steph Curry like story again? A supreme talent that carries his small school to national prominence. My guess is that if those kids played in today’s NCAA, they would have transferred to make more money or play in front of more fans after their freshman seasons. When kids are looking to transfer, it’s not just about win and losses or playing time anymore. The question of how much money can I make is also a big part of the discussion.
These discussions are happening constantly because coaches and players are now caught in an endless recruiting cycle. Not only are college coaches recruiting high school players, but they are now forced to recruit their own players to return after every season. The NCAA transfer portal rules now allow athletes to basically declare free agency without any penalty one time in their college careers, so college coaches are like general managers scouring the waiver wire and free agency after each season looking for ways to immediately upgrade their clubs. This is a precedent unseen in any other sport.
Professional baseball or football players can’t declare free agency whenever they feel like it. They can’t secretly put their name into a portal and quit a team without a conversation with a coach or management like college kids can nowadays. They can’t decide they’re no longer going to play for their team anymore because they don’t win enough, get enough playing time, or make enough money like college kids can. While the NCAA had good intentions, what they have done is ruining the sport of college basketball and will quickly ruin the most exciting asset of their biggest moneymaker.
The transfer portal was created as compensation for kids that were locked into an NCAA scholarship and suddenly saw their coach get fired or leave for another program. In many ways, the NCAA tournament and Cinderella helped manifest the transfer portal. It’s pretty common for colleges to fire their head basketball coaches when they don’t make the tournament or when they have had a series of short March runs at a high level program. The top candidates to fill those vacancies are usually guys who have successfully built a mid-major program and enjoyed March success. Suddenly the kids who helped elevate that coach to a national profile are now left without a leader. While their coach was signing a multi-million dollar deal somewhere else and taking over a program immediately, kids were forced to sit out a year and start over at a new school. On the flip side, when a coach was fired, the returning players were forced to sit around and wait to see who was going to take over and adapt to a new style of coaching and play that they didn’t sign on for. However, under the old rules they had to suck it up and adapt to the new coach or decide to sit out from the game they love for a year because of the decisions of others.
In that context, it only seems fair that kids should be able to transfer and play immediately. Unfortunately, that’s not how or why the majority of kids are transferring these days. Kids are transferring after a semester at one school, under the same coach that they chose over everyone else a few short months ago. Kids that start almost every game at a school one year are jumping into the transfer portal just as much as kids that rarely saw the floor. Quite honestly, it is really amazing how these coaches can hold teams together these days.
I know that times are changing, and I’m aware that I am now a part of an older generation, but I just can’t get my head around what we’re seeing in college sports, basketball in particular. In football, it’s understood for most kids that they’ll need to sit for almost two years before they can expect to physically compete and play a high amount of snaps at the high D-1 level, so most kids don’t transfer until they are upperclassmen and realize that their path to playing time at their current school is blocked by others on the roster. By then, they have learned to deal with the highs and lows of a program and a sport, and they’re also almost or even finished with their college degree. They have shown some committment and grit. Yet, in basketball if kids aren’t starting or ‘running the show’ right away or by the end of their first couple of seasons, they are ready bolt for greener pastures. In many ways, it’s a replication of what people are seeing in today’s workforce with the younger generations.
For the high level programs, this plays right into their hands. Load up on elite talent and let the carnage on your own roster take care of itself. Keep winning and bringing in revenue from your fanbase and exposure from TV, the NIL money and allure of playing for an elite program will keep bringing high level kids to your door. Today’s college coaches are fools to not constantly be recruiting high level talent, even if that current position on the roster is settled, because you truly never know who will be leaving your program and when. Just like in pro sports, the teams with the most revenue and resources will simply reload, while those that do not will be forced to pick up what is left.
Mid-major coaches work just as hard as the high-level coaches, most times even harder when it comes to recruiting. They are on a much more limited budget, so they have to allocate their time and resources much better. To be successful, they have to identify kids that Power 5 programs may have overlooked, and then it is their job to develop them. However, in today’s world, all they could be doing is making those kids better and more attractive to be plucked by a bigger program at the end of the year.
I have a son that attends Ball State. Some families went down to watch a basketball game with our kids who attended the school earlier this year. Within the first five minutes of the game I noticed a freshman post player that had a big frame, good footwork, and nice touch to his offensive game. I half jokingly and half knowingly turned to my friend and asked how much he wanted to bet that the kid would be in the transfer portal at the end of the season. My friend was a wise man because he didn’t take the bet, because that kid is now in the portal and being contacted by programs from the SEC, ACC, and Big Ten. On one hand I can’t blame the kid for wanting to play in sold out arenas versus ones that have tarps over a large chunk of seats, but on the other hand why shouldn’t he have to honor his committment? Granted his coach was fired, but would that really have kept him there after this season anyways?
So, bringing this back to the NCAA tournament. How are mid-majors and small schools expected to compete with the Power 5 schools in the future? There is nothing keeping the star players at small schools from transferring. We’ve already seen Murray State potentially lose multiple members of its team that earned a 7 seed in the NCAA tournament, the highest in school history, to the transfer portal. I am only using the word potentially because players could always choose to come back if they’d like. Granted, their coach left; again, riding the success of his hard work and his players to greener pastures and a big time job, but where does that leave the program and its fanbase?
It wasn’t that long ago that everyone was trying to figure out what a Saluki was because Southern Illinois was consistently making NCAA appearances and noise. The Saluki’s made two Sweet Sixteen appearances in six seasons, despite having three different coaches. While Bruce Weber and Matt Painter went off to coach in the Big Ten, the players that elevated their profiles remained at the school and continued the success. Southern Illinois made six straight NCAA appearances from 2002-07 because there wasn’t a mass exodus of players, and they haven’t been back to the Big Dance since then.
What is the reward for St. Peter’s magical March run? Their coach is leaving to go take over a Big East program, which was perpetuated by his success and his players. Those players and remaining coaches won’t all get to follow Shaheen Holloway, so why not do the same thing and try to parlay their success into a higher profile and more money for themselves while they can?
In this past year’s NCAA tournament, there were 3 double digit seeds to advance past the first weekend. Those are the schools that get dubbed as Cinderella. However, are we supposed to get excited and sentimental over Iowa St. and Miami? Those are both programs that play in power conferences and on national TV almost every game. However, with the invention of the current transfer portal, those are going to be the ‘Cinderella’s’ that we’re going to be forced to root for in the future. Two of Miami’s top players were transfers, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise then that Iowa State’s top player was also a transfer.
Get used to being force fed the idea that 8 seeded North Carolina is a great story about overcoming adversity and knocking off top teams to make the Final Four. The little guys already had the deck stacked handily against them, but the current rules and situation in college basketball is only going to make it worse. There are so many debates about whether the little guy should even get into the tournament or that there are too many D-1 college basketball teams, but aside from that the NCAA tournament is…was the greatest spectacle in sports.
Fans love to root for the underdog and watch great contests between David vs Goliath in March. However, with the way things stand now in the game, get used to having more blue-blood Final Fours and Cinderella’s that look and feel more like the wicked stepsisters. David is going to reach into his pocket for a stone and come up empty-handed.
For those that love the long shots and the underdogs, have fun rooting for North Carolina this weekend. However, be sure to note that their second leading scorer is a transfer, and the reason they struggled so mightily for a while this year is because another one of their top players that is now out for the season is also a transfer. The mighty Tar Heels took advantage of this new system that will keep the little schools down and eventually suck the fun out of March Madness. It was a great getting to know you St. Peter’s, and I don’t think we’ll hear or see another story like yours for quite some time.