Sports Outside the Beltway

Cinderella is Overrated

So says Bomani Jones.

In the old days, the gap between Cinderella and big-conference stepsisters was much larger. But since widespread early entry into the NBA draft makes a junior in the Big East seem as seasoned as Julio Franco — and those who stick around three years frequently weren’t spectacular to begin with — mid-majors aren’t the underdogs they once were. The stepsisters have spent the last decade watching their star players depart early, staying long enough to lend their talents but not long enough to contribute the guile and leadership that separates very good teams from great ones.

Take this as evidence of the effect of early entry on tournament fields: Only six top seeds in the history of the women’s tournament have not made the Sweet 16. This season, 14 of the 16 teams seeded 1-4 made the Sweet 16. The lowest seed remaining? Albuquerque region No. 8 seed Boston College, a school from a conference too large to get anybody warm and/or fuzzy.

Since the WNBA isn’t cutting checks large enough to make it worth the stress for anyone to leave school early, the best players in the women’s major conferences stay in school. Let the WNBA get a gigantic television deal — I mean, I guess that might happen some day in my grandchildren’s lifetime — and the kids might skip out in search of riches. Instead, Candace Parker will be dunking on overmatched young women until 2009.

The men’s game just doesn’t work like that.

Cinderellas end each season with a definite idea of who’s coming back for the next season. They are better able to build teams on experience. George Mason has six players who average 20 minutes per game, and three are seniors. So what’s so surprising about the Patriots beating a North Carolina team that started two former walk-ons, two freshmen and another player who averaged 4.5 minutes last season? If the Patriots and Tar Heels played two games out of three, there would be no great reason to bet against George Mason. That day — and maybe on another — the Patriots were the better team (and the same can be said about Bradley and Kansas).

These schools are no longer hopelessly overmatched. They don’t walk into the gym and stare at guys like Craig Smith with amazement, as if John Henry were in the layup line. They come to play ball, able to beat big-time schools without having to depend on a stepsister’s bad day to run concurrently with their best days or having a David Robinson-like star.

Come to think of it, Cinderella isn’t that charming. She’s not even a belle at a ball. She’s the semi-cute girl hanging around a minute or two before last call. When most of the dimes have gone home, the nickels start looking awfully shiny.

There’s nothing inspiring about that, but that’s how you wind up with a Wichita State-George Mason regional semifinal. At this point, schools like Wichita State and George Mason are only underdogs because most people have never heard of them. There’s nothing moving about that. Give the Missouri Valley Conference and Colonial Athletic Association better television deals, and you can bet they’ll get little to no love.

That’s about right. I’m a very, very casual fan of college hoops and tend to fill out my brackets based on some combination of my logic telling me that seeding means something and my intuition developed over twenty-odd years of awareness of the game. This year, that system totally failed me although, so did just about everyone else’s.

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