ST. LOUIS — Middle Tennessee State Coach Kermit Davis wanted his team to be That Team in this year’s N.C.A.A. tournament, and on Friday, after the 15th-seeded Blue Raiders beat Michigan State, among the most accomplished basketball teams of the past decade, that’s what it was.
“There’s such great college stories this time of year every year,” Davis said. “We looked at it and said, ‘Guys, why not Middle Tennessee?’ ”
Paul Jesperson, a Northern Iowa senior, reflected on the annual madness of March shortly after hitting a half-court buzzer beater Friday night to upset sixth-seeded Texas by saying, “We’re just trying to play as long as we can.” And Yale’s players said they had been inspired to a first-round victory over a higher seed, Baylor, in part by a pregame visit from Rhode Island’s first female governor, Gina Raimondo.
“She just told the story about how she was the underdog,” forward Justin Sears said. “No one believed she was going to win, and she’s the governor of Rhode Island now.”
Those victories were only three of the shining moments from the tournament’s first two days. By Monday morning, the shine was gone.
Over the weekend, Middle Tennessee State lost by 25 points to Syracuse, which was playing its 100th N.C.A.A. tournament game; Northern Iowa lost a seemingly impenetrable lead and was beaten by Texas A&M, of the mighty Southeastern Conference; and Yale was overwhelmed by Duke, the defending national champion.
The empires struck back.
It was bad news for fans who root for underdogs, to be sure. But more important, the results also called into question one of the greatest draws of the N.C.A.A. tournament: that any team that gets in can make a deep run.
In a college basketball season marked by unusual parity, those surviving and advancing nonetheless included mostly the usual suspects: Duke, Kansas, North Carolina, Syracuse, Virginia, Wisconsin. All that was missing was ominous, minor-key backing music (well, that and Kentucky).
Of the teams headed to the round of 16, only two play outside the so-called Power 5 conferences: Villanova, of the Big East — the one nonpower conference that, because of history and alignment, is considered a major basketball conference — and Gonzaga, the only team that has transformed itself from genuine outsider to perennial contender.
The other 14 are in the five major conferences that benefit from billions of dollars in money and exposure traceable to something that on its face has nothing to do with college basketball: college football. The money and exposure football brings is having a competitive effect on men’s basketball, in the form of coaching salaries, facilities, private jets, desirability in recruits’ eyes and other factors both measurable and intangible.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this state of affairs. Like it or not, money buying success is the American way. And in sifting out all but the most worthy teams, the N.C.A.A. tournament helps ensure the best possible basketball in the later rounds.
But a landed gentry in college basketball, particularly one that has been established by football media deals, goes against the rhetoric the N.C.A.A. uses to describe the event, which generates more than 90 percent of its annual revenue.
Testifying in the Ed O’Bannon case in 2014, the N.C.A.A.’s president, Mark Emmert, called the players’ amateur status “essential” to “competitive balance.” Last month, he described the appeal of the men’s basketball tournament precisely as the opportunity for surprising upsets; his example was Mercer beating Duke in the opening round of the 2014 tournament. And to be fair, there were a few more shockers this year. And then there weren’t.
By Sunday night, the only remaining double-digit seeds were Gonzaga, an 11th seed that is in the tournament for the 18th straight year, and Syracuse, a No. 10 whose coach has the second most victories in Division I history.
While there is a strict salary cap in college sports, in the form of scholarships, there is no spending cap. That is part of the reason the remaining teams are led by most of the country’s top-paid coaches, from Mike Krzyzewski on down. Friday’s Wisconsin-Notre Dame matchup, so unlikely from a basketball perspective, will feature a team from one of the country’s most financially robust athletic departments against a team that is attached to the only football program with its own network television deal.
So to paraphrase Senator Marco Rubio of Florida (who no doubt will be rooting for third-seeded Miami against second-seeded Villanova Thursday night), let’s dispense with this fiction that just because the Ohio Valley Conference champion and the Atlantic Coast Conference champion both receive automatic bids that there is any semblance of competitive balance.