The 2023 Final Four serves as a glimpse of where college basketball is headed, thanks to unique roster dynamics caused by the transfer portal and rapid growth of the sport.
March 20, 2010, is a landmark day in college basketball history. Top-seeded Kansas, one of the sport’s all-time heavyweights, was set to do battle with an upstart Northern Iowa squad out of the Missouri Valley.
Every college hoops fan knows how the story ends. UNI point guard Ali Farokhmanesh drills a no-no-no-YES 3-pointer with 35 seconds remaining to give the Panthers a 4-point lead and an eventual improbable victory.
At the time, the result seemed unfathomable. How could Kansas lose this game? The Jayhawks entered the second-round matchup at 33-2 on the year, led by 10 top-100 recruits and eight players who would eventually appear in an NBA game. Northern Iowa, rather unsurprisingly, had none of either.
While Farokhmanesh’s dagger triple will be forever woven into the fabric of college basketball history, a similar result would hardly register on the Richter scale of modern-era March Madness chaos.
The game has changed, and the results are proof.
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A couple of years later, on March 16, 2012, 2-seeds Duke and Missouri went down in the first round just hours apart to Lehigh and Norfolk State, respectively. It was considered the most unbelievable day in NCAA Tournament history.
In large part, the script was similar to 2010’s UNI-over-Kansas thriller. Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils had seven top-100 recruits, including a top-10 pick in Austin Rivers and 2013 All-American in Mason Plumlee. Missouri, meanwhile, was equipped with an All-American itself in Marcus Denmon and the No. 44 overall pick later that year in Kim English.
Lehigh and Norfolk State? Zero star-studded recruits. Zero All-Americans.
But this is where the script changes and the “new era” of college basketball kicks in.
The best eventual pro in the Duke-Lehigh game wasn’t on the Blue Devils’ side. Instead, it was Lehigh guard C.J. McCollum, who stood just 5-2 as a freshman in high school. He was Ohio’s Gatorade High School Player of the Year in 2009, and has since gone on to enjoy a lengthy NBA career, currently poised to record his eighth consecutive year averaging at least 20 points per game at the sport’s highest level.
As for Missouri-Norfolk State, it’s a similar story. NSU forward Kyle O’Quinn originally planned on playing college football and nearly quit basketball entirely while in high school. His only D1 basketball scholarship offer came from Norfolk State, and he eventually parlayed it into an 8-year NBA career with more than $20 million in salary earnings.
The 2023 NCAA Tournament — or the previous half-decade of March Madness, if we’re being honest — is like March 16, 2012, all over again.
Florida Atlantic just secured its first-ever trip to the Final Four in the program’s second NCAA Tournament appearance. But instead of the shock and awe we witnessed when UNI beat Kansas in 2010, the conversation, instead, has shifted to whether or not the Owls should be even considered a Cinderella.
FAU, again, with zero superstar recruits or bonafide pros, is two wins from a national championship, and no one even seems that surprised. Florida Atlantic is 17th in KenPom — better than any team in the ACC — and its run has been anything but a fluke. The Owls are just damn good, and the same can be said for any team that finds its way into the field of 68 these days.
After all, the talent gap between the haves and have-nots in college basketball is as thin as it’s ever been. Two 16-seeds have advanced in the first round over the last five years. A 15-seed has reached the Sweet 16 three consecutive years. The Final Four has featured a team seeded 8th or worse in eight of the last 12 tournaments. This year’s Final Four doesn’t feature a single top-3 seed.
Heck, try this: Princeton stunned 2-seed Arizona in the first round last week, relinquished its spot in the news cycle after National Player of the Year Zach Edey and 1-seed Purdue lost to KenPom No. 299 Fairleigh Dickinson the next day, and then regained their trending headlines come Saturday after the Tigers pounded Missouri to get to the Sweet 16.
If it weren’t for the names on the front of the jerseys, how well could anyone spot an “upset” with a naked eye?
According to KenPom, Fairleigh Dickinson was the shortest team Division 1 basketball has seen in over a decade, with an average player height of 73.4 inches. Purdue, of course, had 7-4 behemoth Zach Edey in the middle, towering more than a foot above almost the entire FDU roster.
It was supposed to be the ultimate David vs. Goliath matchup in college basketball history. Las Vegas set the spread at a 23.5-point advantage in favor of the Boilermakers, almost unheard of for an NCAA Tournament game.
But even as the largest upset in March Madness history unfolded, Fairleigh Dickinson simply looked the part of the better basketball team, no matter how undersized or talent deficient. Remember, just 13 years ago, it was hard to believe that 9-seed Northern Iowa could beat Kansas in the second round. Now, we have arguably the biggest NCAA Tournament mismatch ever going the underdog’s way.
According to Sports Business Journal, more than 27 million people ages six or older played basketball in 2021, extending its 14-year run as the most popular sport in the United States. In addition to foreign-born players taking over the NBA, basketball continues to grow within the U.S., upping the level of competition at every age.
Coupling more prospective student-athletes every year while the transfer portal rapidly shifts the dynamics of roster construction, it’s no wonder why college basketball has been flipped upside down. Florida Atlantic isn’t really that different from, say, the Florida Gators these days.
High-major talents are flocking to smaller schools in search of playing time while mid-major superstars are transferring up to the big leagues to fill the vacancies. Take FAU for example. While they have plenty of homegrown talent in Boca Raton, head coach Dusty May imported three key players from high-major programs — center Vladislav Goldin (Texas Tech), plus guards Bryan Greenlee (Minnesota) and Jalen Gaffney (UConn) — to round out his roster. On the other hand, teams like Alabama are able to poach high-level mid-major talents (such as Ohio’s Mark Sears) and pair them with superstar recruits like Brandon Miller. It’s a complete shift in dynamics within college basketball where the traditional powerhouses are led by former small-conference stars and those pesky mid-majors, in some cases, have more players who started their careers at a Power-Five school. It’s the mid-major all-stars vs. the high-major castoffs, and it’s anyone’s guess as to who’s coming out on top.
The most outstanding player from the East region was 5-8 Little Rock transfer Markquis Nowell, who ignited the Madison Square Garden crowd with one of the all-time tournament runs by a point guard. Meanwhile, Seattle U transfer Darrion Trammell, earned the South region’s most outstanding player honor. He started his career at the JUCO level and led all scorers with 21 points in San Diego State’s win over projected No. 2 draft pick Brandon Miller. Trammell played home games last year in the 999-capacity Redhawk Center.
These stories can and will go on and on but the larger point remains. In basketball, the cream rises to the top regardless of what the recruiting stars or NIL checks may indicate. We’re witnessing it all unfold as another year of madness passes.
That’s the NCAA Tournament these days in a nutshell.
No one is safe, and every single team is capable of leaving its mark on any given day.