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Elite teams taking full charge of basketball's Final Four

Big money, recruiting power, and selection committees mean the era of Cinderella teams is all but over.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 4, 2009


The University of Nevada at Reno is a good basketball school. But men's coach Mark Fox acknowledged a bitter truth for Nevada fans when he bolted this week for a coaching job at the University of Georgia.

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Sure, Mr. Fox tripled his salary in the time it took to fly from the high desert to the seven hills of Athens. But his decision had as much, or more, to do with an ill-kept secret in the NCAA: The Cinderella aspect of March Madness has become a myth.

"He knew he was not ever going to be able to get to the Final Four [with Nevada]," says Richard Davies, a University of Nevada history professor and author of "Sports in American Life: A History." "We can compete. But we can't win."

To be sure, big upsets, deep runs by smaller schools like Memphis or Cleveland State still make the 65-team tournament a thrilling must-see for millions of college fans each year. This year, the NCAA increased seating at Detroit's Ford Center to make room for Michigan State fans, whose dribblers will contend with UNC, Villanova, and UConn this weekend for the championship.

But on the 30th anniversary of the nail-biter matchup between Larry Bird's Indiana State squad and Magic Johnson of Michigan State that sparked the March Madness tradition, the big question for many basketball fans is whether the Cinderella era is gone for good – the victim of recruiting dynasties, revenue-sharing that favors power conferences, and a tourney selection committee that has to face the ratings pressures of a $6 billion TV contract.

"You're not going to get a Hoosier story, it can't happen," says William Sutton, a sports business professor at the University of Central Florida. "You've got to have a remarkable season to get a seventh or eighth spot, and you'll never have a chance to play for the national title. Your chances have been legislated out. [The NCAA] doesn't want true parity, the powers that be don't want it."

Despite late runs by mid-major schools like George Mason in 2006 and tiny Davidson last year, the fact is that, in the past 20 years, only one of every 8 teams have come from outside the power conferences like the SEC or Big East, and only UNLV has won the title, in 1990. This year, the top three seeds from all four regions made the Sweet 16 round last weekend.