The big story of this year’s NCAA Tournament has been the rise of the “little guys.” Small-fry programs like Bradley, George Mason, and Wichita State have knocked off traditional powers like Kansas and North Carolina. Not only have these upset victories been fun to watch, we’re also told that they represent the triumph of virtue in college sports.
“The better the little guys play, the better it is for the tournament and college basketball,” wrote the Washington Post’sJohn Feinstein. “We’ve long since lost our belief in the myth of the ‘amateur student-athlete,’ ” explained ESPN.com’s Tim Keown. “But once a year, Northwestern State hits a 3 at the buzzer and we believe again. We root for Bradley and George Mason because they’re good stories, and because they seem a bit purer than the bulk of the field.” The Chicago Sun-Times’ Greg Couch even argued that Bradley’s victory brought about the “return of innocence” to the sports world.
Let’s take a closer look at Bradley University, that great restorer of innocence. Patrick O’Bryant, the Braves’$2 7-foot-tall NBA prospect, was suspended for eight games earlier this year for accepting money for work he never did. Three other Bradley players were found to have accepted excessive payments. (The school claimed the players didn’t realize they were receiving too much money.) After the Braves’ second-best player, Marcellus Sommerville, transferred from the University of Iowa in 2003, his father told the Peoria Journal-Star that Bradley coaches engaged in illegal tampering, encouraging Sommerville to switch schools while he was still enrolled at Iowa. Starting point guard Daniel Ruffin was forced to sit out his freshman year when the NCAA refused to accept his test scores.
At least Bradley graduates 73 percent of its players—a figure many of its fellow Cinderellas can’t come close to matching. The plucky Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panthers, who dominated Oklahoma in the first round, have a graduation rate of 28 percent. Bradley’s Missouri Valley Conference rivals at Wichita State (50 percent) and Northern Iowa (30 percent) don’t fare much better. Only two schools in this year’s tournament failed to graduate any black players that enrolled as freshmen between 1995 and 1998 (the most recent period for which data is available): Northern Iowa and Nevada, both mid-majors. By contrast, four schools managed to graduate 100 percent of their players in that same period. Three of them are the basketball factories Illinois, Florida, and Villanova; the other is the Patriot League’s Bucknell, which only started awarding basketball scholarships three years ago.
Much of the little guys’ appeal comes from the fact that the players don’t turn pro after their sophomore year and the coaches don’t get paid big bucks. But that has less to do with morals than opportunity. Mid-major players don’t emerge fully formed from a magical peach-basket-laden gym in rural Indiana, ready to hoop it up and hit the books with equal enthusiasm. They come from the same shady prep schools and junior colleges as the major-conference studs—they’re just not quite good enough to get recruited by the top-tier teams. (Sometimes they even come from the major-conference schools. Wichita State has players who once suited up for Illinois and Marquette.) And there’s no more mercenary figure in sports than the mid-major coach. Every year, a small-time coach or three—Kent State’s Stan Heath, Nevada’s Trent Johnson, Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Bruce Pearl, the Tulsa coach du jour—happily parlays a tournament run into an opportunity with a big fish.
What separates the mid-majors from college basketball royalty isn’t scholar-athlete purity. It’s two more tangible things: history and money. Mostly money. What happens when a mid-major gets flush with dough? It morphs into Gonzaga, a school that quickly and eagerly adopted the same skewed priorities as its big-time brethren. Constant hype on ESPN? Check. A recruiting scandal in the recent past? Check. A coach that gets paid more than twice as much as the university president? Check.
If Duke and UConn are the Yankees and Red Sox of college basketball, then Bradley and Wichita State are the NCAA’s Royals and Tigers. They have less money and less talent than the sport’s bluebloods, but that doesn’t make them any more honest. Upsets make the NCAA Tournament great because they’re unexpected. Just stop telling me that Cinderella’s heart is pure.