April 3, 2013

Cinderella success stories becoming norm, not exception, in NCAA Tournament

Wichita State following in Final Four footsteps of Butler, VCU, others

As coach of the lowest-seeded team to reach the Final Four, Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall will accept the role of underdog this weekend in Atlanta. Just don’t compare his Shockers to any Disney character.

“Cinderella found one glass slipper. We won four games,” Marshall said in a teleconference earlier this week with Final Four coaches. “I don’t think she found four glass slippers. Cinderella usually wins a game or two. When you get to this point, you’re good enough to win it all.”

For teams from non-BCS leagues like Wichita State (30-8), the Missouri Valley Conference’s first Final Four entry since Larry Bird’s Indiana State team reached the championship game in 1979, the NCAA Tournament is becoming a proving ground more than a mine field in recent seasons.

Wichita State is the seventh team from outside college basketball’s six power conferences to reach the Final Four in the past decade and the fourth to do so in the past four seasons. Teams from the Horizon League (Butler, twice) and Conference USA (Memphis) have played for three of college basketball’s last five national championships.

None of them have cut down the nets. But their success, combined with the widespread parity of this year’s regular season and NCAA Tournament, suggests that a Final Four run by an under-the-radar underdog is becoming the norm, not the exception, in today’s college basketball.

In simpler terms: There should be nothing shocking about the Shockers rolling through the West Regional as a No. 9 seed to set up Saturday’s showdown against top-seed Louisville (33-5) in Atlanta. After all, double-digit seeds from Virginia Commonwealth (No. 11, 2011) and George Mason (No. 11, 2006) have had their Final Four moments in recent seasons, too.

Yet in an era of unprecedented parity in men’s college basketball, punctuated by the annual exodus of one-and-done freshmen stars heading to the NBA Draft, we’re still stunned when lower-seeded teams notch a series of high-profile victories in March. That is why Marshall, in his sixth season at Wichita State following a decade at Winthrop (1998-2007), has seen his cell phone blow up this week with congratulatory text messages from peers at other programs run on shoestring budgets compared to the deep-pocketed bluebloods — Louisville, Michigan, and Syracuse — who will join the Shockers at the Final Four.

“Every time it’s been offered, I haven’t chased the bigger, better job,” Marshall said. “In fact, one of the things I’m most proud of is how many folks texted, emailed, called me prior to the Elite Eight game against Ohio State and said, ‘Look, we will never get this opportunity. Please do this for us, the little guys that never get this opportunity.’ That’s what makes it so cool that we were successful.”

But every successful Final Four run by Wichita State, George Mason, VCU or Butler blurs the line between which programs truly offer the “bigger, better job” in college basketball. VCU coach Shaka Smart and Butler coach Brad Stephens were quick to turn down opportunities to replace fired UCLA coach Ben Howland after the Bruins were bounced in the first round of this year’s tournament, causing school officials to turn to Steve Alford, former coach at New Mexico.

Michigan coach John Beilein, whose team captured the South Regional title by knocking of Florida, 79-59, in Cowboys Stadium, understands why those coaches chose to remain in their positions. In today’s climate, it is just as possible to win big at Butler or VCU as any high-dollar program if a coach recruits players who fit his system and agree to be something more than one-and-done, NBA-bound mercenaries.

“There’s a lot of room for this in college basketball if you do things the right way and get kids to stick around,” Beilein said. “You can grow a program more than people think you can.”

Because it takes only two elite athletes and a handful of role players to put a basketball program on the map, unlike the double-digit supply of three- and four-star signees needed for sustained success in college football, turnarounds can happen quickly in hoops. If those players bond over multiple seasons, they can shock the world as seniors.

Miami coach Jim Larranaga used that recipe to lead George Mason to the 2006 Final Four, when the Patriots upset Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut before falling to Florida in the semifinals.

“We had three seniors in our starting lineup, and two sophomores,” Larranaga said. “That George Mason team was not even supposed to make the NCAA Tournament, according to the experts. But we had a good combination of youthful enthusiasm and experience, size and toughness. The seeding is not really an issue. Once you get into the tournament, everybody’s good. You really need to play well to move on.”

That’s rarely been more apparent than this season, when the top spot in The Associated Press’ rankings changed hands seven times during the regular season and Louisville (No. 1, Midwest Region) was the only team seeded higher than fourth in its region to reach the Final Four. The 2013 tournament saw a No. 15 seed, Florida Gulf Coast, reach the Sweet 16 for the first time in tournament history and do it with a pair of double-digit victories.

“If you follow college basketball, upsets happen all the time. But in March, it gets made a much, much bigger issue,” said Florida coach Billy Donovan, whose team eventually eliminated FGCU, 62-50, at Cowboys Stadium. “There’s so many good teams, the parity of college basketball certainly is a lot different today than it was 25 years ago. That’s what makes this tournament so special. It’s really hard to get out of the first weekend any more. It just is.”

The more upstarts that advance, the greater the opportunity for Cinderella to wind up at the Final Four. Although Marshall dislikes that label, Louisville coach Rick Pitinio said it fits the Shockers as well as the Providence team he took to the 1987 Final Four, Pitino’s first as a college coach. But he sees a huge difference in the two squads.

“You would consider both Cinderella teams, but Wichita State has much more talent than we had at Providence,” Pitino said. “I think Wichita State is a much better defensive team than we were. We just caught offensive fire at the right time.”

If the Shockers can continue to play stifling defense in Atlanta, they could become the first team from a non-BCS league to win an NCAA title since UNLV in 1990. At the very least, they are the latest in a growing line of under-the-radar programs using the Final Four to show the nation they are capable college teams, not just Cinderella stories.

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