Little Big Bang Theory

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

As catcalls, cackles and crow descend upon Billy Packer this week, the CBS broadcaster's counter argument is that the goal of an analyst is to get people talking, and Packer certainly did with his opinion that most mid-major teams were unworthy of NCAA tournament bids.

That would be fine if Packer had just offered a strong comment that, unlucky for him, turned out wrong. But Packer's mistake was the basis for his take, which was ill-thought, illogical and illegitimate in the face of the changed tide of college hoops.

To anyone paying attention to anything but a couple of power leagues, the fact that five of the Sweet 16 come from outside the Big Six conferences is no surprise at all.

This isn't to suggest that on average the big leagues don't play the best ball. But to argue they have cornered the market is to be out of touch with reality.

While few, if any, could have selected the quadfecta of Bradley, George Mason, Gonzaga and Wichita State advancing to the tourney's second weekend, let alone the bonus ball of zero Big Ten teams making it, this was certainly possible.

Provocative opinions are great – and far too rare on all-smiles, no-substance CBS – but dumb ones are just dumb.

We are hoping Packer has to call the George Mason-Wichita State game, and as a service to him, we offer seven reasons why he is having the worst week ever (at least since CBS tried to convince ESPN to let it "borrow" Dick Vitale) and why mid-majors teams are more viable than ever before.

1. Early entry

In 1995, the year high schooler Kevin Garnett became the first player in two decades to bypass college and directly enter the NBA draft, the average seed of the Sweet 16 teams was 3.2. (The lowest possible number – that is, if the top-four seeds in each regional advanced – is 2.5.)

This year's number: 4.4. It's a statistically significant increase that occurred despite the rare advancement of all four No. 1 seeds and Gonzaga as a three seed.

Garnett and the 4.4 average are not unrelated. Top recruits going directly to the pros (or leaving early, sometimes after just one season) is a trend that revved up considerably after Garnett's trend-setting decision. Those players, elite prep stars or superstar underclassmen, almost exclusively affect the traditional power teams that attract such talent.

Do you think Ohio State loses in the second round if it had a junior named LeBron James? How is Arkansas with Al Jefferson and Olu Famutini? How about North Carolina with four missing seniors?

At Wichita State, almost no one goes pro early. And the Shockers don't even bother recruiting the prom-to-the-pros guys.

The result is a closing of the talent gap, as fewer and fewer big-name teams have that ultra-talented player who can carry them through the tournament.

2. Talent

As a result, the lack of truly great players left in college basketball is startling. Because of parity, tradition, young players' competitive instincts and the tournament's atmosphere, the event is still great theatre. But it isn't great basketball.

To watch four days of the NCAA tournament is to watch bad plays, bad shot selections, bad turnovers, bad free-throw shooting and an almost complete lack of understanding of time and score. Late-game situations these days have deteriorated into one kid trying to crossover-dribble a defender at the top of the key and chucking up a fall-a-way three (often when trailing by two and often with seven seconds still on the clock).

Danny Manning would have just taken it to the rack and dunked it on someone.

The drop in quality of play is mind-numbing and painfully obvious if you watch ESPN Classic games from the early 1990s. The good news for Billy Packer is that NBA commissioner David Stern decided that 18-year-old basketball players aren't smart enough to make their own decisions, so the best of the best will now be returning to college hoops next season, at least for one year.

3. Age

The result of all of these defections is a quickening of the recruiting cycles in major conferences. You don't sign guys for four years anymore. You are happy to get two. And sometimes, even with the most talented and promising players, you are still stuck with kids.

North Carolina had better "talent" than George Mason on Sunday, but in that game, three of the Tar Heels' top-six scorers were freshmen. Three of Mason's top six were seniors. Good 22-year-olds are often better than great 18-year-olds.

4. Scholarship limitations

Between the lowering of the scholarship limit to 13 and the now-defunct (but still impacting this tournament) 5/8 rule that cut the number of kids a team could recruit over a one- and two-year period, top programs have not been able to horde talent the way they used to.

Fifteen, 20 years ago, Bradley's 7-foot center Patrick O'Bryant would have been snatched up as a project by a Big Ten team. Instead, no one gambled on the then-unpolished high school player from Minnesota and he went to the Missouri Valley Conference. O'Bryant had 28 points and seven rebounds in the Braves' victory over Pittsburgh.

5. Coaching

The "Coach as CEO" hiring trend in college basketball – where image-conscious athletic directors listen to television broadcasters or hire sketchy "search firms" such as Champ Search (which is run by ticket brokers/traveling team owners Dana and David Pump) – has predictably been met with mixed results.

Too often, the coaches with the big jobs look good in a suit, smile nice for the camera and either played for or assisted under a famous coach. But they can't coach their way out of a paper bag. Getting a big school job is about who you know, not what you know, and it is costing some schools, and not just in Armani clothing budgets.

Bucknell's Pat Flannery had his team put a clinic on Arkansas in the first round, the way he has for years. But since he doesn't look like one of those movers and shakers, he may never move up. Of course, that is what they said about John Beilein until West Virginia made him their fourth choice (and hasn't stopped winning since).

6. Assistant coaching

The most important skill set for an assistant coach to possess these days is recruiting contacts. It also is No. 2, and probably No. 3 (although looking good in a suit is right there, too).

Actual basketball acumen is way down the list. Everything is about having an "in" with the right high school coach, summer traveling team or diploma-producing storefront "prep school."

Increasingly, assistants are plucked off traveling teams or come recommended by a local flesh peddler. The days of coaching high school ball for 10 to 15 years, learning your trade and then moving up are almost extinct at the high-major level (but not the mid-major where player development is more valued).

The result is not just poor scouting but also worse game plans and no in-game adjustments.

It also leads to terrible evaluations of high school players. Go to the high school All-America camps and 90 percent of high-major assistants stand around and gossip rather than look for hidden talent or properly assess the player they are willing to sell their soul for.

Because assistants want head coaching jobs, they are obsessed with signing the players that are rated the highest on the national lists, and that gets broadcaster and "search firm" attention. They are less obsessed about getting the best fits for their teams. But those lists have always overrated athletic ability and don't factor in chemistry, leadership and intelligence.

Moreover, since the NCAA has pushed the recruiting process into the prospects' junior years, late bloomers (basically anyone with a great senior season) slip through the cracks.

The big schools may get more top-100 recruits, but, then again, back in 2003, Adam Morrison wasn't considered a top-100 recruit.

7. NCAA enforcement

While Jerry Tarkanian's old joke about how the NCAA was so mad at Kentucky cheating "they gave Cleveland State two more years probation" is still too often true, it isn't as bad as it used to be.

The NCAA has cracked down on major conferences and, while the punishments rarely fit the crime, they do have some teeth. The days of the tap-on-the-wrist "public reprimand" have ceased.

And guess what? Surprise, surprise, but the big conferences cheat more than the mid-majors.

Eighteen power conference schools are currently on probation. Since 1999, in the ethically bankrupt Big Ten, five men's basketball programs have been convicted of major violations and hit with sanctions.

The Missouri Valley Conference has none.

It may not derail these major programs – on-probation Ohio State was still in the tournament – but it might slow them down a little.

Which, in this new day and age of college basketball, is sometimes all it takes for Billy Packer to have one lousy week.

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