By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
If ever it has been important for West Virginia University to make a late run and find a way to squeeze into the field for the NCAA Tournament, this is the year to do so.
All one has to do is look across the college basketball horizon to realize that the sport is in a transitional phase, a time where the great teams that often dominate the game and the NCAA Tournament are slipping.
In other words, it may be a Cinderella year.
Think about it: Kansas went into its Monday night game with three consecutive losses and that coming after just narrowly slipping by WVU when it was ranked No. 1 and 2 in the two polls. The other giants in the game, schools like North Carolina and Duke, are having their problems, the Tar Heels with seven losses and Duke, while 21-2, trailing Miami by two games in the ACC.
In the Big East, Syracuse has gone from invincible to vincible and now stands at 21-3. Michigan and Indiana, each with time at No. 1, have three losses. Kentucky, the defending champion, has lost six games and trails a Florida team that showed all kinds of flaws in losing at Arkansas.
In other words, the tournament would seem to be as wide open as it has been in any number of years.
“There may be three, four or five teams that separate themselves from the pack in consistency,” Kansas’ Bill Self said in Monday’s Big 12 coaches conference call. “Then there’s a slew of teams that can beat those teams if you catch them on the right day.”
That is what the NCAA Tournament is about, underdog teams catching a favored team when it isn’t ready to play at its highest level.
Self went so far as to say that what will be termed upsets in the tournament may not in reality be such major upsets, for the top teams are not really dominant teams.
“Teams can make a strong push to get to Atlanta,” Self said, referring to the Final Four.
TCU coach Trent Johnson, who lost to West Virginia on Saturday, knows something about Cinderella, having taken Nevada to the Sweet 16 of the 2003-04 NCAAs before losing to Georgia Tech.
“I think anywhere from 30 to 40 teams who, if they are playing well, can go far this year,” Johnson said, adding he felt there were at least six teams in the Big 12 who could go deeply into the tournament.
And Scott Drew, the Baylor coach who took time out from preparing for WVU on Wednesday, agreed that this year’s tournament seems to be anyone’s for the taking.
“I think it will be a great tournament, and everyone wants to be a part of it because it’s wide open,” he said. “The seeding numbers mean less than they did.”
There are any of a number of reasons why the dominant powers seem to be far less dominant, in part because it is something that has developed over the years.
“Your general trends are people leaving early to go into the draft,” Drew said. “It’s hard to get leadership and continuity. You have a lot more inexperience in the BCS level than you used to have.”
The best players always had been drawn to the BCS level of college basketball but now the mid-majors, in part because their players are staying longer and give those schools the continuity and leadership that is lacking at the higher level.
“That balances things off,” Drew said.
The perfect example is Kentucky, which was in a class by itself last year in the NCAA.
The Wildcats had six players drafted by the NBA last year, led by No. 1 pick Anthony Davis, who had finished just his freshman season. Kentucky had three freshmen and two sophomores drafted off last season’s team.
A couple of seasons earlier they had five first-round selections and over the past three years they sent 14 players to the NBA.
What this does is keeps teams from building dynasties, changing the power structure almost on a yearly basis and setting it up for a team like VCU or George Mason that has experienced, dedicated college players to make a run in the NCAA Tournament without the superstar power that fuels the NBA.
And as WVU is growing in stature as the season goes on, it would be interesting to see whom they might sneak up on if they can somehow make that miracle run down the stretch.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.