A funny thing happened on the way to the Sweet 16.
Did your bracket the opening rounds of March Madness? Can it last through the Sweet Sixteen? The Wall Street Journal sports team breaks down the big winners and losers of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.
After a weekend of upsets and who-dat matchups that echoed the chaos we've seen in recent years, the teams that made it to the NCAA tournament's fourth round are remarkable in one respect: An unprecedented number of them are members of college basketball's royal class.
The tournament's 16 remaining teams have won 34 titles between them. And it's not just one or two pedigreed schools: A total of 13 of the 16 have won the national title before, the most in any Sweet 16 field in history.
In fact, even without Duke and UCLA, eight of the 18 teams that have the most Sweet 16 appearances are still alive, including three of the top four.
But wait, there's even more bad news for the basketball peasantry. Nine of the 20 schools that spend the most on men's basketball are in this year's Sweet 16. Plus, there are 92 active NBA players representing every program still in the dance, with the exception of Ohio, the only true Cinderella.
As fun as it may be to see a passel of serfs in their oddly colored rags taking on the sport's robed patricians, many basketball fans are secretly happy that the unwashed masses have been left outside the arena.
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N.C. State coach Jim Valvano celebrated after the 1983 title game.
"People like and expect the Lehighs, Norfolk States and Ohio Universities," said former Bowling Green and Indiana coach Dan Dakich, now an ESPN analyst. "But people want the powers."
So here's a question: Is there something about having royal blood that can propel a team in the tournament?
It certainly doesn't hurt recruiting. Bob Hurley, the basketball coach at New Jersey's St. Anthony, said the kings of college hoops have an advantage because they're "brands" that top-tier recruits recognize. He notes UCLA, which didn't make the tournament this year (but has more titles (11) than any school), signed his top player this season, Kyle Anderson.
For title favorites like Kentucky and North Carolina, their success tends to be self-perpetuating. Because these schools often advance to the tournament's late rounds, they benefit from more exposure. "These are teams that sustain themselves by being there," Hurley said.
Bob Knight's 1976 Indiana squad is the last major team to finish the season undefeated.
Recruiting has changed a lot since the bluebloods ruled the kingdom, of course. Most elite recruits no longer grow up with dreams of playing for Kentucky or North Carolina, said Tom Konchalski, a New York-based high-school talent evaluator. Instead, he said, "they grow up dreaming of playing in the NBA." But having a pedigree helps in that regard, too: They get a lot more TV exposure.
This season, 23 of North Carolina's 30 regular-season games aired on national TV, with the others available on regional stations or ESPN3.
This year's royal ascent has less to do with Carolina and Kentucky than it does the renaissance of Indiana and North Carolina State, two programs that squeezed out the usual mid-major darlings. These two programs, located in two of the sport's heart-and-soul states, have seven combined national titles but just two Sweet 16 appearances in the last decade.
Indiana watched Butler, whose entire athletic department makes less in revenue than Indiana does on men's basketball alone, advance to consecutive NCAA tournament finals—including one in Indianapolis. The state of North Carolina, meanwhile, is home to three of the last seven national champions (except they belong to North Carolina and Duke).
Michigan State guard Earvin "Magic" Johnson was the most outstanding player of the 1979 Final Four.
These programs were turned around in opposite ways. Indiana hired coach Tom Crean in 2008 and faced a long road back. The Hoosiers were 28-66 in his first three seasons in front of crowds that dwindled so much that Indiana dropped the price of balcony seats to $5.
Meanwhile, the Wolfpack missed the NCAA tournament in all five years of ex-coach Sidney Lowe's tenure. Current coach Mark Gottfried, a former ESPN analyst, was hardly the school's first option as his replacement. But he inherited enough raw talent that the team flourished right away. Now N.C. State is the tournament's hottest team. Both the Hoosiers and Wolfpack have top-five recruiting classes coming next year, too.
And their next games against fellow aristocrats Kentucky and Kansas this week will be less a dance than a royal ballet.
Write to Ben Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org and Scott Cacciola at email@example.com
A version of this article appeared Mar. 20, 2012, on page D8 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Return of Basketball's Patricians.
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