Couch: Little Guys Are Leading In This Year’s Big Dance

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Even Sister Jean’s bracket is broken, as she picked West Virginia to beat her own Loyola Chicago. West Virginia and the legendarily infamous Bob Huggins are gone now. Loyola with Cameron Krutwig, who is now the mustache, if not the face, of college basketball, is still in.

What’s happening in college basketball now seems to be a movement. Seems to be, but no one is really sure. Not even a 101-year-old team chaplain who has survived two pandemics a century apart has the connections to figure this one out.

But the NCAA Tournament is now about the little guy, who is deliciously chasing off the sport’s elite and coming after its power structure with pitchforks. We tend to have a Loyola or a Belmont or a George Mason hanging around through the tournament for our amusement. But this year’s tournament is defined by Oral Roberts over Florida and Loyola over Illinois, and before that, Abilene Christian (quick: what state is that in?) beating behemoth Texas. North Texas and Ohio both won. Meanwhile, the Big Ten, which was supposed to dominate, had eight losers and one winner in the first weekend.

Nobody really knows why this is happening. And the big boys are shocked. Duke and Kentucky never got to the NCAA Tournament, blueblood Kansas lost by 34 points with coach Bill Self saying “For us to have a chance to be a national contender, I mean we need to get a little bit more athletic. We need to get a little longer and bigger.’’

North Carolina left in a hurry too, with coach Roy Williams saying that he “started the season when I was 70 years old and I feel (now) like I am 103.’’

Even Sister Jean thinks that’s old.

They put the entire tournament in the revered land of college basketball: Indiana. Yet the Indiana Hoosiers are just a ghost here. And when Ohio State lost fast, Twitter nation threatened the life of player A.J. Liddell, leading to the authorities and protection coming in and Liddell saying:

“What did I do to deserve this? I’m human.’’

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Why is this happening? Theories are coming in. Guesses, mostly. At this point, we’re just in the observation stage. But the NBA’s developmental league, the G League, stole some of the prime recruits that the bluebloods would usually get for one year. 

Meanwhile, the nation’s attention and even local fans haven’t been focused on their usual heroes. Home games and the NCAA Tournament are played without pep bands and buzz and massive fan bases. Not to mention, if you’re a blueblood, the NCAA selection committee tends to put you at a “neutral’’ site for the tournament that your fans can drive to while your opponent’s fans can watch on TV.

There’s probably some truth to all of that, really. Maybe some of the outrageous built-in advantages that the sport’s powerhouses feel have been neutralized.

And so the little-guy coaches are getting the rewards for a change, for the ingenuity they’ve been relying on with experienced players working together.

It’s sweat equity over privilege.

Will it last? Let’s be honest: probably not. But players are looking to empower themselves in the face of the NCAA desperately raking in its billions of dollars on the tournament. The #NotNCAAProperty movement is in place, and the NCAA is nervously wondering whether the players, upset about not getting a piece of the TV pie, might consider boycotting, delaying a game or walking off.

Imagine that happening at the Final Four.

That seems highly unlikely. But the NCAA had better be paying attention because the players, and their pitchforks, are coming for the governing body’s money. The players are going to be paid eventually.

Meanwhile, it doesn’t seem likely that Oral Roberts will lead in college basketball’s new world order. Money always rises to the top, and the bluebloods have ways of figuring things out. They still have the money and still have the power. They still have Nike and networks clamoring for them.

And not only that, but three top seeds are still alive in the tournament. The power boys haven’t given up their power yet. But they have to be uncomfortable, anyway.

That’s a good start. 

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Written by Greg Couch

Greg earned the 2007 Peter Lisagor Award as the best sports columnist in the Chicagoland area for his work with the Chicago Sun-Times, where he started as a college football writer in 1997 before becoming a general columnist in 2003. He also won a Lisagor in 2016 for his commentary in and The Guardian.

Couch penned articles and columns for Report, AOL Fanhouse, and The Sporting News and contributed as a writer and on-air analyst for and Fox Sports 1 TV. In his journalistic roles, Couch has covered the grandest stages of tennis from Wimbledon to the Olympics, among numerous national and international sporting spectacles. He also won first place awards from the U.S. Tennis Writers Association for his event coverage and column writing on the sport in 2010.


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