Mark Wiedmer: Fluke Or The Future?

  • Friday, March 31, 2023

With three first-time Final Four participants making up 75 percent of this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament national semifinals for the first time since 1970 _ four-time national champ Connecticut is the outlier in this otherwise quixotic quartet _ it is a question worth pondering.

After all, according to Las Vegas, which has billions of reasons to keep up with these things, had you put a single George Washington down at the start of the tourney that this year's final foursome would be Florida Atlantic, Miami, San Diego State and UConn, you’d be $125,000 richer today.

Read that again. Not $125 richer, but 125 THOUSAND DOLLARS richer.

To lend some sense of probability that the big betting bucks end here, that 1970 Final Four of first-timers Jacksonville, New Mexico State and St. Bonaventure along with three-time defending champion UCLA was won by, you guessed it, the Bruins, who would wind up with 10 titles in 12 seasons between 1964 and 1975 under their matchless coach John Wooden, also known as the Wizard of Westwood.

Take away N.C. State over Houston’s Phi Slamma Jamma in 1983 and Villanova over defending champ Georgetown in 1985 and these past 53 years have almost always seen Cinderealla turn into a pumpkin during the sport’s final weekend.

And that same form should hold this weekend inside Houston’s NRG Stadium, where UConn _ which has won all four of its NCAA crowns s since 1999 _ is the overwhelming favorite to cut down the nets on Monday night while being blanketed in confetti and serenaded by the iconic “One Shining Moment.”

But this weekend aside, is this an aberration returning for the first time since 1970, or is this the future of the sport as it clumsily navigates Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) faux guidelines and the equal chicanery of the transfer portal?

We may not have seen a school west of Waco, Texas, (Baylor, 2021) win the NCAA tourney since Arizona did in 1997, but we are undoubtedly living in the wild, wild West of college hoops, as loony and lawless a time as we’ve seen in the sport since at least the 1980s.

No less than Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner Jim Philips _ who has watched longtime ACC members Duke, North Carolina and Virginia hoist NCAA trophies since 2015 _ said at the close of Miami’s regional final win over Texas this past Sunday: “This is a new day in college basketball. When you look at the rosters across the country, some return many players and for others, it’s a complete transformation.”

No program may have transformed itself due to NIL and the transfer portal more than Miami. Three of the Hurricanes’ top four players are transfers in Midwest Regional MVP Jordan Miller (George Mason), Nigel Pack (Kansas State) and post player Norchad Omier (Arkansas State).

It’s what they may have used to lure them there that bothers the purists of the game.

John Ruiz, the CEO of LifeWallet and longtime Miami booster, paid Pack a two-year, $800,000 NIL deal through his company, along with inking lesser deals with Miller, Omier and ACC regular-season MVP Isaiah Wong. Prior to this season, Wong even threatened to leave if his deal with LifeWallet wasn’t enhanced. He stayed. Make of that what you will.

Such deals are not illegal, but even as the sport basks in the glow of three newcomers on its biggest stage, Hall of Fame player and noted television analyst Charles Barkley cautioned on CBS’s “60 Minutes” last week that NIL is threatening to ruin the sport for all but a few.

“It's a travesty and a disgrace," said Barkley. "I'm so mad now how we can mess up something so beautiful. We can't pay all these players. The next three to five years we're gonna have 25 schools that's gonna dominate the sports because they can afford players. And these schools who can't afford, or won't pay players, are gonna be irrelevant."

Maybe he’s right and maybe he’s wrong, but it is difficult to see most schools being able to pay multiple millions of dollars over a long period of time to win championships. Beyond that, what happens in programs who make an initial investment for no return? Think Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M isn’t already hearing it from all those boosters who committed $20 million for last year’s football recruiting class only to wind up with a losing record?

As one MIami administrator noted of his school’s hoops success, such money brings “great expectations.”

And one can’t help but wonder what happens when those expectations aren’t met. There’s already more than one example of players being viciously attacked on social media after losses and some of that venom surely begins with the words “for all the money you’re making we should be seeing better results.”

In one of the uglier examples of this, after Michigan junior forward Terrance Williams II struggled in a NIT loss to Vanderbilt last week, someone posted on the web that he should be left for dead in a ditch.

Hopefully, such abhorrent behavior won’t surface during this weekend’s games, which should go as follows: San Diego State physically roughs up Florida Atlantic in Saturday’s first semifinal in much the same way the Aztecs got physical with Alabama in that South Regional semifinal. Then expect UConn to outlast the Hurri-ch-chings in the second semi _ sadly denying the country a chance to see 73-year-old Miami coach Jim Larranaga boogie down in the locker room afterward _ with the Huskies then beating SDSU by 84-70 on Monday night.

Then expect Miami’s Ruiz and his LifeWallet company to lure a whole new roster to UM before next season. It might even start with UT star forward Oliver Nkamhoua, who entered the transfer portal this week. It was Nkamhoua who scored 27 points in the Round of 32 victory over Duke, and he has one season left.

Beyond that, he just became the sixth Vol ever to average at least 10 points, five rebounds and two assists for a season, joining Bernard King, Ernie Grunfeld, Vincent Yarbrough, Tyler Smith and Grant Williams. There’s surely some pretty decent NIL money somewhere to corral a talent like that. And should Miami land him, he could torment the Dookies in conference play next year.

Barkley’s right that all of this could be messing up something so beautiful in the near future. But at least for this season, for this weekend’s Final Four, watching three new names crash the party is also what makes any sport beautiful. Especially when it’s college basketball and March Madness.

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You can reach Mark Wiedmer at

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