The seventh seeded Connecticut Huskies defeated the eighth seeded Kentucky Wildcats to win the National Championship in 2014. Both teams technical underdogs due to their seeding, but neither can be called a Cinderella due to the power conferences they come from.
All you hear about nowadays is the parity in college basketball. Everyone wants to talk about how mid-majors have been closing the gap on their power conference counterparts, but is this truly the case?
I’m not trying to say that it is impossible for a mid-major team to hang with the big boys, but the perception of this new equality that is being forced down the general public’s throat is just a fantasy of college basketball pundits. This year only two of the Sweet 16 teams in the NCAA were not in power seven conferences (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, PAC12, AAC, and SEC). These were the Dayton Flyers and the San Diego State Aztecs.
The Flyers, an 11 seed, were your classic Cinderella story that managed to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. They overcame the Ohio State Buckeyes, Syracuse Orange, and Stanford Cardinal before finally bowing out to the Florida Gators. This was an extremely impressive run for Archie Miller’s team and can be a launching pad to turn Dayton into a national program, but by no means is this anything unprecedented in the sport.
Since 1986 Dayton is the seventh number 11 seed to make it to the Elite Eight. The last one was VCU in 2011. This should not diminish what Dayton accomplished, but it is not unprecedented either. Teams get hot, get good matchups, and advance further than expected in the tournament every single year so it cannot be an indicator of parity.
The San Diego State Aztecs, the Wichita State Shockers, and the Gonzaga Bulldogs are bad examples of parity as well. These teams have all turned themselves into nationally relevant programs despite being stuck at the mid-major level. They are the outliers when it comes to smaller conferences, not the norm. Using outliers to gauge where the sport is currently at gives an extremely false representation of the whole.
Take Wichita State for example. Just like one cannot claim the Shockers were overrated due to a third round loss to Kentucky, one cannot claim that the gap in the sport is closing because of their undefeated campaign. Using the top one percent of teams in small conferences to judge how the entire college basketball universe is faring is completely unfair. The proper judgment should be how the middle of the road mid-major squads are faring.
People were infuriated all over America because Kentucky and UConn have each masqueraded this year as underdogs behind their low seeds. In reality these teams were probably seeded too low, while their mid-major counterparts were too high. At the end of the day Kentucky and UConn were both middle of the road power conference teams before the seeding committee slated them in to their positions in the field. This shows the depth that the top of college basketball has, but not so much the improvement of the lower tiers.
The only strong non major conference in 2013-2014 was the Atlantic 10. This conference had a wonderful year producing six teams that made the field of 68. Overall, it was a miserable experience in the tournament outside of Dayton, but this cannot take away the fact that the A-10 is much closer to the power conferences than the rest of the mid-majors.
The problem with the argument for parity is that the smaller conference teams are not getting better; it’s just that the power conference teams are spreading themselves out. The American Athletic Conference is in its first year of action and had four bids to the NCAAs this year.
Realignment has also allowed for teams that have been overshadowed in big conferences historically to take advantage of easier league play. The best example of this is a team like the Providence Friars, who have long been in the basement of the Big East but were able to capitalize in the new look, watered down conference.
Furthermore, some of the best mid-major teams have been poached by power conferences. The Big East snagged the Creighton Bluejays, Xavier Musketeers, and Butler Bulldogs. The American Athletic Conference added the Memphis Tigers and Temple Owls. Do these teams joining power conferences mean more parity or just a bigger gap from everybody else?
There will always be teams that shock the world like the Mercer Bears did in the NCAA Tournament when they took down the Duke Blue Devils. That’s what makes college basketball the best sport there is, but at the end of the day the best programs still dominate. With the right coaching, administration, and fan base any school can become nationally relevant, but, generally speaking, the same top dogs will be at the top of the totem pole year after year.
Cinderella will always have her place at the ball, but there will never be a point where all 68 teams in the field will be able to call themselves equal. If that was the case, the tournament would not be nearly as much fun.