Monday's national championship game between Flordida and UCLA was quite possibly the worst final I've ever seen. The UConn shellacking of Georgia Tech in 2004 was up there on the anti-entertainment scale as well, but at least I knew the Huskies were putting on a preview of things to come in the NBA with Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon on the floor. There's a lot of potential with the guys on both Florida and UCLA, but certainly no locks for future stardom.
Thus, the focus for my last college basketball post of the season is to address the monolithic groupthink that has permeated the sports world since George Mason made it to the Final Four. The overwhelming view right now is that George Mason's NCAA Tournament run is going to change everything for midmajor schools and that Billy Packer ought to be hung in effigy for his ignorance. However, as the Sports Guy would say in paraphrasing the Wolf from “Pulp Fiction”, let's not start sucking each other's you-know-whats just yet.
As I wrote last week, George Mason's Final Four berth is the most improbable sports achievement I've witnessed in my lifetime and I outlined exactly why. I'm not sure how so many analysts all of the sudden believe that the preponderance of the evidence showing the major conferences (and the BCS conferences in particular) dominating the NCAA Tournament when it comes to the Final Four are suddenly going to be thrown by the wayside. There's a reason why the appearance of George Mason was such a major story: this was an aberration rather than a sign of things to come. This isn't the rant of a Big Ten snob. Quite to the contrary, let's think about this rationally from (1) a talent perspective and (2) how the college sports business works.
The talent gap between the majors and midmajors is going to widen again next year with the new rule preventing prep players from entering the NBA Draft until one year after they graduate from high school. Every single one of those players who would have skipped college to go to the pros will be heading to major programs. Even though this doesn't eradicate the prospect of college players leaving early for the NBA Draft, which is the area that majors suffer more from than the midmajors, a team is still better off with top flight underclassmen a la Syracuse's Carmelo Anthony in 2003 or Florida's Joakim Noah this year than a group of mid-level seniors when it comes to winning national championships. So, I doubt that the midmajors are really going to make headway when the majors are going to get their biggest talent infusion in a generation over the next few years.
At the same time, the rise of George Mason isn't going to do anything to alter the non-conference scheduling by the majors. George Mason might become one of a tiny handful of midmajors other than Gonzaga to regularly obtain home-and-home series with high majors, but the business of college sports dictates that fortune of those schools won't spread to their fellow midmajors. For example, Illinois typically schedules 2 true road games per year (Illinois playing "at" UIC at the United Center or Indiana playing "at" Butler at the Conseco Fieldhouse are anything but true road games), one of which is a return game for a team that they had invited previously to the United Center (typically an ACC, Pac-10, or SEC team) and the other usually being an ACC-Big Ten Challenge game. Is Illinois going to (a) give up a revenue producing home game to play a midmajor on the road or (b) replace a road game against an ACC-type team with a midmajor team? There's no way that the Illini would ever take either if those options. Even worse from the midmajor perspective, Illinois is typically one of the more aggresive schedulers of the top programs. Teams such as Syracuse and UConn often go through their entire non-conference slates playing only one or even zero true road games. The point is that the major conference schools go on the road sparingly, and when they do, they want to play other major conference schools.
As a result, I don't believe all the hype about the sea-change about to come for the midmajors. In fact, it's extremely likely that the majors will be more powerful next season. There's a reason why the story of Norman Dale and Hickory High was made into the movie “Hoosiers”: it was a once-in-a-lifetime event. The George Mason run is a great story that is going to be on that mythical level, as well, because it's not going to happen again for a long time.