The Ebb and the Flow of Parity
There is a subtle shift occurring throughout the College Basketball landscape. It is a shift that is not necessarily permanent or one that has been noticed by many sports fans during the hibernation the NFL season puts on all other sports. The shift is not altering something that hasn’t happened in various forms throughout the past decade either. Yet it shows that what was slowly building over the decade in College Basketball has maybe come to its full evolution. If you ask me it is a shift that I enjoy for the same reason people like the even playing field of the NFL and continue to loathe the financial structure of Major League Baseball. The shift is otherwise known as parity and how selection Sunday this year may be the last time we see only 65 teams selected.
The specific example I am referring to is how the once mighty Pac-10 and the perennially cyclical and unpredictable Atlantic 10 have traded places for postseason birth rights for 2010. The Pac-10 is a conference with the all time winning program in terms of titles in UCLA, a team with the longest current streak of seasons reaching the NCAA tournament for 25 straight years in Arizona, and a collection of eight other programs that put together Elite 8 and Sweet 16 level programs virtually every year in California, USC, Washington, and Oregon. However, all of this prestige and dominance both recent and long ago are just that, past accomplishments. Accomplishments that the NCAA committee will not care about come selection Sunday. Because as of the end of January there was one team, California, ranked in the top 50 of the RPI. Yes it has a tremendous strength of schedule yet it still can’t seem to separate itself from the rest of the mediocrity enveloping the league. Currently they are battling for the top spot along with Arizona and USC. Most years this would be a huge feat for Mike Montgomery’s Bears, before you remember that Arizona is 12-11 and USC is 14-9 while also ineligible of playing in any postseason tournament because of the O.J. Mayo recruiting fiasco bringing down harsh NCAA sanctions. The only other faint hope of light is the Washington Huskies sitting at 16-7 overall but only 6-5 within the league. 6-5 in the Pac-10 this year is not a badge of honor. It’s more like a pity clap for finishing the race after all the other racers have finished and warmed down.
On the flip side is the Atlantic 10 which could see an unprecedented SIX teams reach the field of 65. With Temple, Xavier, Dayton, Rhode Island, Richmond, and Charlotte all putting up top 50 RPI resume’s and strong non-conference schedules the shift of the once proud depth of the Pac-10 has temporarily been airlifted to the East Coast and Midwest of this proud yet overshadowed league. The Atlantic 10 has had one constant, Xavier, with a few lingering wannabe’s in Dayton, St. Joseph’s, and Temple that reach the Big Dance and make tiny chinks in the armor of the “BCS” programs. While Xavier has accomplished more this past decade in terms of tournament wins then the media darling Gonzaga has, the program along with their conference seems to get lost in the East Coast shuffle dominated by the Big East and ACC. Yet this year these six teams have seen victories over Georgia Tech, Villanova, Cincinnati, Louisville, Mississippi State, Florida, Missouri, and Oklahoma State. While the winner of the Pac-10 tournament could conceivably be the only representative of a once mighty conference for the NCAA tournament, the A-10 will see five at-large bids scatter over the four regional brackets along with the conference champion.
This shift is an evolution of the parity we have seen grow every year in College Basketball. Before when a Princeton would nearly beat a Georgetown or a two seeded Arizona lose to Steve Nash and Santa Clara we knew they would fizzle out and become cute footnotes brought up in montages every March. But then a Gonzaga happened, then George Mason. Along with these startling runs by ‘mid-major’ programs you saw a St. Joseph’s team go 27-1 and grab a one-seed in the 2004 NCAA tournament. Programs once praying for a three game run in their conference tournament like Butler, Gonzaga, Siena, Manhattan, and BYU could now schedule tough non-conference schedules and know that a solid resume and dominance of an average conference would guarantee an at-large birth.
But is it the talent of basketball players in High School in general getting better and going where they can play right away causing this shift? Is it because most schools know that they can get TV exposure on the ‘family of networks’ or any regional Foxsports broadcast? Are coaches getting better at recruiting hidden gems? I believe it is all some of these reasons. But the main reason is the ‘One and Done’ rule the NBA instituted during the 2006-2007 season. What this rule has done has made the ‘Royal’ programs like North Carolina, Kansas, UCLA, and Kentucky (or anywhere John Calipari coaches) get rich on the best high school players in the land where they come for a free ride of college superstardom, an immediate chance at a title, and vast exposure of the skills that should be playing in the NBA .
Now you may wonder how this has caused the shift I keep referring too. Well it is simple. When teams bleed for guys like Kevin Durant and John Wall they also risk the gaping roster hole these kids create once they skip town for the NBA. While programs like Xavier, Temple, and Dayton have time to nourish the talent they are able to get for 4 years teams like UCLA are now left bleeding to death when guys like Kevin Love or Jrue Holliday leave and cause major problems when their departures also coincide with the graduation of establish upperclassmen.
You may scoff at this notion because it is only one year when the Pac-10 is down and the A-10 is up. And I would say you are right. You may also scoff because until teams in the A-10, Horizon League, WCC, or MEAC win anything more than their 5-12 matchups in March you can say that the ‘Royal’ programs are still the standard. And I would again say you are right. But I would simply ask one question. If this wasn’t an issue, and the ‘Royal’ Programs will always be their in the end why is the NCAA considering expanding the tournament field to 96 teams? Is it because they want to see more upsets from Hampton or is it because even though they may find Jim Boeheim’s constant whining every 3 years during selection Sunday annoying (when his team doesn’t make the tournament even though they play in the greatest super league ever created by man in the Big East but still have 15 losses) they know that the more teams in the tournament means more of a chance the bigger names from the marquee conferences are making up the Final Four. The NCAA sees the parity and knows that shifts like the one the Pac-10 and A-10 are exchanging this year are going to continue to happen because of the ‘one and done’ rule. This tournament expansion is a direct response from the NCAA to counter the leagues like the Horizon and WCC that see 2 teams make the league when Butler and Gonzaga don’t win their conference tournament and therefore steal spots from their coveted cash cow super leagues they have created and restructured to help their own bottom line.
This expansion may benefit teams on the fringe in the Big East or ACC to get one last shot of glory they never displayed all year but I see it as nothing more of an acknowledgement that parity has now created great programs in areas of the country that weren’t supposed to be this good for this long in the eyes of the NCAA. It is a shift they see as more of a nuisance.
By Michael Collins, CollegeSports-fans.com Staff Writer