By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) Despite the popularity of the clichéd, post-victory cry, nobody really “shocks the world.”
We all keep playing our respective roles, of course, even as we have learned to expect such things. The clock hits all zeroes for a double-digit seed’s win over a heritage program, and the game broadcasters explode into an orgiastic supernova of wonder and awe. They throw it back to studio analysts who bemoan their own, tattered brackets before their fawning interview of the now-known coach with the scratchy voice and the loosened, team-colored tie.
Just as it all happened last year and the year before, it happens again. The impossible, as possible as ever.
It becomes increasingly difficult to force the projection of cinematic stories on an event that has become democratized so quickly and so clearly. Schools no longer have eras defined by individual stars, when the NBA is quick to pluck prospects as soon as possible, and the kids are smart to oblige. There is no Patrick Ewing to be toppled, no Phi Slamma Jamma to upend. Even if a given year’s pros-to-be are ousted, it’s completely understandable for freshmen to be inconsistent.
Ubiquitous video, social media, and instant connectivity have rendered the exotic mundane on multiple levels. Any coach or fan can see every player and every play of every school as desired. Even when something shiny and new pops up on the radar screen, it takes about five minutes for it to assimilate comfortably into the bloodstream.
Moreover, upstarts actually become goliaths, taking advantage of exposure to build a sustaining brand. Gonzaga went from a cute little story to a perennial west-coast favorite, running in the same recruiting circles as Pac-10 mainstays. Remember when Butler was presented like Hickory HS, the plucky Indiana farm-boys up against the big-time bad guys? They now lend name-value legitimacy and weight to the newly-formed Big East.
George Mason was the commuter school that crashed the Final Four, just as VCU made their run to the final weekend from a play-in spot. The former’s coach, Jim Larranaga, is now helming a wildly successful Miami team, and we all await a similar move by Shaka Smart when the right deal is in front of him. We are conditioned to really good coaches elevating mid-majors.
Coaching in general is better and more standardized, and the path to a tournament “upset” is so well traveled that it’s been mapped. It’s no accident when a lesser-talented team of upperclassmen executes a tight system on both ends of the floor to defeat bigger, stronger faster freshmen led by some basketball emperor.
In fact, it was the idea all along. And it keeps succeeding.
The three-point line is too close, long TV timeouts mean ample rest for the one or two really good players on the underdog, making the opponent’s roster full of McDonalds All-Americans matter less in a single game, and that one outcome is all that’s needed.
NCAA officials in charge of the selections have been recently transparent about the seeding process, and we are more aware than ever about how many variables determine the slotting that results in these labels that drive storylines. Arcane computer formulas and human judgment can only go so far in separating favorites from their counterparts.
Not that it’s not fun, any of it. It just seems as if we now try so hard to pretend the tournament is what it always was, when it’s now something different. Differences between college basketball programs have leveled out, and year-to-year volatility within the biggest-name schools has increased.
When Cinderella keeps coming back to the ball, we’re not obligated to keep reading it as a fairy tale.