The man knows a little something about riding shotgun with frontrunners, so it wasn’t exactly a surprise that Chris Christie wound up in the Notre Dame locker room on Sunday afternoon, schmoozing with a sixth-seeded team that probably should have succumbed to a 14 seed in the NCAA tournament, if not for a few strokes of luck down the stretch.
Stephen F. Austin, that school more rife with lumberjack references than a Monty Python sketch, came one putback away from the Sweet Sixteen, but even with that defeat and Christie’s latest attempt to cling to a winner, this felt like the kind of weekend that seemed to thumb its nose at the overarching politics of college basketball.
Every year, the tournament’s selection committee winds up awarding far too many bids to middling major-conference schools at the expense of mid-majors the likes of Stephen F. Austin, which soundly defeated West Virginia and played toe-to-toe with Notre Dame before falling 76-75 in Brooklyn. The competitive nature of that game probably shouldn’t have been a surprise, given that SFA had won 21 games in a row, and notched 89 victories over the past three years; but it feels like every year now, more and more mid-majors like SFA wind up reinforcing the folly of the committee’s thinking.
You saw it already, when Middle Tennessee shocked Michigan State, Yale upended Baylor, Hawaii beat Cal and Northern Iowa dispatched Texas (and should have beaten Texas A&M). The great thing about college basketball is that there is more parity than there’s ever been, and as outstanding as this opening weekend was, can you believe it might have been even better? For instance, here’s a question: If Gonzaga, which finished second in the West Coast Conference this year but won the conference tournament, could make it to the Sweet Sixteen, what could St. Mary’s – which missed out on a tourney bid despite beating Gonzaga twice during the regular season – have done in this field? For that matter, who might Monmouth or St. Bonaventure have upended?
And I know what you’re going to say in response. You’re going to say that many of these teams lost in the first round, and many of those that did pull off an upset didn’t make it out of the second round. You’re going to point to teams like Syracuse, a 10 seed that probably shouldn’t have gotten a bid in the first place and is now in the Sweet Sixteen. To an extent, that’s fair; no one is saying that the balance of power will ever shift fully toward mid-majors, but every year, the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament reinforces the notion that college basketball is better off embracing its inherent socialism.
What was remarkable about that Notre Dame-SFA game is that SFA was almost certainly the better team. They were favored by a point heading into it, and they were not intimidated one bit, because the notion of mid-major schools succumbing to the weight of the moment in the NCAA tournament has become less and less of an issue.
Who knows if the committee will take any of this into account next season, if faced with the same dilemma of whether to choose a mid-major or a middling major conference school? I doubt it will have any impact at all. There’s a cuteness to this first weekend of the tournament that’s hard to get beyond, and all that sentimentality disguises the fact that the underdogs have begun to catch up to the point where they’re often indistinguishable from the favorites.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb