Thanks for stopping by, Western Kentucky.
Exit Cleveland State, stage left.
So long, Siena.
Don’t forget to pick up a parting gift on your way out.
For all the things that were different about the basketball season, this much remained the same: The focus for the first weekend of the NCAA tournament may have been on fresh faces, but next weekend it’s back to familiar ones.
All four No. 1 seeds advanced for the fifth straight year, and this year, so did all the No. 2s and 3s, as well as two No. 4s. Of the two remaining seeds, Purdue was a No. 5 and Arizona was a No. 12, but since the Wildcats are making their 25th consecutive appearance in the tourney, calling them outsiders would be a stretch.
Less surprising still were those teams’ affiliations. The Big East had a record five still holding onto a place in the bracket, followed by the Big 12 with three, the Atlantic Coast and Big Ten conferences with two each, and the Pac-10 with one.
That’s 13 spots for the six major conferences that just happen to control college football’s Bowl Championship Series. Of the remaining three teams, when it comes to basketball, Memphis and Gonzaga are “mid-majors” in name only and Xavier is on the verge of joining them. So maybe the only sweet thing about the 16 teams still left is the seven-figure payouts they’ll return to their cash-strapped athletic departments and those of their conference brethren.
The NCAA tournament is miles ahead of the BCS when it comes to crowning a real champion, but they have this in common: Nobody wins it on the cheap.
The average salary of the coaches in the tourney is $1 million, and the best ones get two or three times that amount, plus perks. There are 330-odd Division I basketball teams competing for 64 spots and the median program runs a yearly operating loss approaching that same $1 million figure. Throw in capital expenses for things like state-of-the-art arenas and practice facilities, and the red ink can drown all but the biggest schools, which often dip into their general funds to cover the shortfall.
Money is the short answer to the question of why a real mid-major still can’t win the NCAA tournament. George Mason reached the Final Four just three years ago, and Siena may have come within a few seconds of knocking off overall top seed Louisville this time around, but the stars had to align nearly perfectly for each to get as far as they did.
And as stalwarts like UConn, Kansas, North Carolina and Michigan State can attest, getting to the top is a lot easier than staying there.
The Saints, like the Patriots, were stocked with tough, seasoned upperclassmen. All five starters from the team that beat Vanderbilt in the first round of the NCAAs last year were back, led by captain Kenny Hasbrouck. But Siena had to go to double-overtime to beat first-round opponent Ohio State, and for a team that relies so heavily on its starting five, the win proved costly.
The Saints still might have been good enough to topple another No. 1 seed most nights, but not Louisville on this night. The NCAA selection committee made the Cardinals the overall top seed based on the way they closed out their season, but besides being one of the most talented squads, they’re also one of the deepest. It took nearly all 60 minutes for that slight edge to prove decisive, but it usually does.
“Our intention, of course, is to keep the program moving forward,” Siena coach Fran McCaffery said bravely afterward. “That said, we know it’s not easy. It’s not easy to win a regular season championship, a tournament championship, and to get back here.
“But we know what it’s like. We know what a phenomenal experience it is, and that gives you the incentive that you need to continue to prepare to get better and to reach your potential. We have a great recruiting class coming in,” he added, “and I have great expectations for our team next year.”
Just don’t bet on it happening.
It’s a wonderful story when a school of less than 3,000 students, playing in a second-class league like the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, throws a scare into the reigning king of the Big East. McCaffery inherited the program after Siena’s worst season ever, recruited like a madman and patiently built a veteran team around Hasbrouck. This season, the Saints played Tennessee, Oklahoma, Pitt and Kansas to prepare to play on a big stage and won their third straight league championship en route.
All that amounts to, unfortunately, is a good foundation.
A few more years like this one and Siena could become the next Xavier or Gonzaga, maybe even Memphis. But maybe not. George Mason coach Jim Larranaga parlayed his team’s Final Four run into a personal windfall — tripling the number of personal appearances he made during the offseason — but the Patriots haven’t come close to another magical run through the bracket since.
Siena, coincidentally, wears the same colors as George Mason, wound up playing in the same place where the Patriots began in 2006 and even had the same bus driver bring them to the arena.
But as any of the student-athletes — as the NCAA likes to call them — from the programs that regard the Sweet 16 as an exclusive club could have told them, the reason fans fall in love with underdogs at this time of year is precisely because they’re so rare.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org