Monday March 22nd, 2010

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- No one can identify for sure when exactly the term "mid-major" became a fixture in college basketball, but the 2006 NCAA tournament -- the year George Mason reached the Final Four -- was clearly its boiling point.

Years from now, here's hoping we'll similarly look back at the 2010 Dance as the event that rendered said phrase outdated, unnecessary and (this one's a long shot) extinct.

We've been conditioned to believe in some mystical distinction between schools that belong to the six power football leagues and those that don't, even when discussing a completely different sport. But if that's the case, how is it that 11 different conferences will be represented when this year's Sweet 16 commences Thursday night?

On the heels of Northern Iowa's second-round takedown of No. 1 Kansas and Cornell's demolition of Temple and Wisconsin; on the eve of Xavier's fourth Sweet 16 appearance in the past seven years and Butler's third in the past eight; isn't it about time we stop viewing certain basketball teams through the prism of their football affiliation and start seeing them as, you know, really good basketball teams?

"Everybody wants to make it seem like it's a big gap -- it's not a big gap," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said Sunday after his team's second-round rout of Gonzaga.

"I watched Northern Iowa play. There's no doubt in my mind that [on Saturday] Northern Iowa was better than Kansas. Northern Iowa made four or five bad turnovers at the end of the game or it would have been a 10-point game. Saint Mary's outplayed Villanova. It's as simple as that. These are good teams."

The NCAA tournament is often two events packed into one. The first weekend is all about buzzer-beaters and Cinderellas; the rest is to determine a national champion. This year, however, the lines were blurred.

The outdated school of thinking would suggest that Ali Farokhmanesh and his Northern Iowa cohorts "exposed" the Jayhawks as frauds, but that would be silly. Kansas didn't win 33 games against one of the nation's toughest schedules by accident. Bill Self's team was unquestionably one of the nation's best this season.

But it's also no secret that the nation's best teams aren't nearly as dominant as in previous eras, which leaves them vulnerable to the nation's next-best teams. As we move into Stage 2 of this championship, the favorites will remain those schools with the number 1 in front of them -- Syracuse, Kentucky and Duke. None were remotely threatened in their first two contests, and surely, we must assume, the clock will run out at some point for our friends at Saint Mary's, Cornell and Northern Iowa. It always does.

It would be a mistake, however, to label any one team the new "favorite" in lieu of Kansas' ouster. It would be downright insane, in fact, because it would mean we didn't learn a darn thing this past weekend.

The Orange looked quite impressive in throttling Vermont and Gonzaga. They looked far more like the team that originally inspired title aspirations back in November and December than the team that fought to stay afloat during February and early March. Wes Johnson, his hand fully healed, played his best basketball to date, showing an Evan Turner-like ability to take over a game. Syracuse's suffocating zone showed no ill effects from the absence of injured center Arinze Onuaku. It's easy to envision them cutting down the nets in Indianapolis.

But first, the Orange (30-4) have to get by a formidable foe from Indianapolis -- 30-4 Butler. Eventual national champ Florida endured its toughest test of the 2007 tourney against the Bulldogs -- and that Butler team didn't boast a single NBA prospect like this year's version does with Gordon Hayward. And this 'Cuse team doesn't start three top-10 picks like the Joakim Noah-Al Horford-Corey Brewer Gators did.

Butler is not going to win the national championship -- but it's fully capable of preventing someone else from doing so.

Many will understandably declare Kentucky (34-2) the new favorite, as the Wildcats are the closest thing in the modern era to the talent-overloaded UNLV teams of the early '90s. (Related aside: Would Jerry Tarkanian's teams have been considered a mid-major had the BCS existed then?) The talent "gap" which Boeheim downplays will be fully evident Thursday night when John Calipari's cast of soon-to-be-lottery picks meets Steve Donahue's cast of soon-to-be professional something-elses. But if athletic talent were the sole determinant of basketball games, Northern Iowa never would have beaten Kansas. The Big Red very nearly beat Kansas on the Jayhawks' home floor. Think they'll be intimidated by Kentucky?

And you've got to believe the consensus perception of Duke has changed considerably over the past week. On Selection Sunday, they were the Devils of bracketdom, the cheats who weaseled their way into someone else's No. 1 seed. But while sexier teams like Kansas, Georgetown and Villanova spit the bit last weekend, Duke went out and demolished Cal, which some may downplay due to the Bears' much-maligned conference, the Pac-10, but remember, the Bears, not Sweet 16 team Washington, won that league's regular-season crown.

Others felt back on Selection Sunday that Baylor would emerge from Duke's South regional, especially considering the two teams will face off in Houston if they meet. But who's to say the Bears will even survive Saint Mary's? Are you ready to dismiss a team whose center, Omar Samhan, rolled up 32 points on a team (Villanova) from the purportedly badass Big East?

That's the thing about the tourney these days: The talent is far more dispersed. Xavier swept past Minnesota and Pittsburgh on the strength of do-everything guard Jordan Crawford, who famously dunked on LeBron James and who, after averaging 27.5 points his first two games, will likely be playing in the same league as LeBron sooner than later.

Turner and Ohio State are as likely as anyone to emerge from the upset-riddled Midwest. Da'Sean Butler and West Virginia would love a shot at John Wall and the Wildcats in the East. And the third remaining No. 2 seed, Kansas State, may have cleared its biggest obstacle when three-time tormentor Kansas got eliminated.

Will any of the remaining ... you-know whats ... reach the Final Four? It's possible. It's also irrelevant. Only four conferences at most can send a team to Indy. Maybe the Horizon League will be one of them. Maybe it won't.

"This is different from football," Boeheim said. "We find out in this tournament who the best teams really are."

But when the "best teams" aren't all that different than "the next-best teams," upsets happen. Here's guessing we've hardly seen the last of them in this, the nation's most egalitarian sporting event.

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