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Thursday, March 26, 2009

As usual, Sweet 16 has familiar look

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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 65 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.

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.

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