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

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.

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."

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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.

Indeed, the growing prevalence of top-seeds and power conference powerhouses marching through March Madness reveals a college dynamic that runs directly counter to attempts by professional leagues in hockey and football to create parity. The idea, as in hockey, that the best team needs the worst team is less and less true in college ball.

That's because revenue-sharing in college sports favors the winners.

"You compound that by having it happen year after year, and then not only is the recruiting better, but the amount they're willing to pay the coach is better, the facilities are better, and you start seeing that add up over the period that the NCAA has had money pouring in from CBS, then you see a consolidation of power based on revenues," says Orange County, N.C. county commissioner and sports writer Barry Jacobs, author of "Across the Line."

"It's a very exclusive club [yet] CBS and most of the credulous media sell the myth that anybody can grow up to be president," he says.

The revenue-sharing arrangements and recruiting power mean that big-name schools like UNC and Florida can afford to forego team dynamics in favor of building all-star squads. That pressure is at play this year as UConn faces a recruiting scandal at a time when the coach is one of the highest-paid state employees in Connecticut, making more money than the governor. The end result is that, for the Charlestons and Hampton Institutes of the world, the window of opportunity is closing.

With unpaid athletes increasingly showing up in for-profit video games and universities selling arena naming rights to everyone from banks to casinos, the NCAA is walking a dangerous line with the current arrangement, critics argue. The anti-trust exemption that allows money to pour into the NCAA because it's part of an educational effort, not anything business-related, "is becoming ever more difficult to argue with a straight face," says Mr. Jacobs.

In fact, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah is working on legislation targeting college football's Bowl Championship Series, arguing that it's an illegal trust – "a cartel within a cartel," according to Jay Coleman, a University of North Florida business professor and coauthor of the famous "Dance Card" rankings of tournament picks.

"There's clearly cartel behavior on the part of the NCAA to some extent, and we can argue about how much," says Mr. Coleman, who is now researching whether the NCAA selection committee's picks reflect biases beyond the parquet. "But the fact that everybody does have a shot [on the basketball side] means that it's still somewhat egalitarian."

Pundits say a shake-up is necessary. One idea is to force power conference teams to play more out-of-game conference games early, both to give mid-major teams a shot at beating a champion – and making their own name and boosting recruiting ability – and also potentially sway the selection committee.

Others say such niceties are unrealistic – and embarrassing. They point to UConn's 103-47 drubbing of Chattanooga in the opening rounds, saying such nice-guy picks by the selection committee amounts to what some sports writers call a "Cinderella tease."

"I want David to slay Goliath every once in a while, I think it's good for the game," says Mr. Sutton. "But the support for the tournament and the ratings confirm that the majority of the world is at peace with the way things are."

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