One by one, reality set in for the potential feel-good stories of the NCAA Tournament. It started on Thursday when Cal State Northridge couldn’t shock Memphis and continued that night as American blew a 14 point lead versus Villanova. The favorites were favorites for a reason. That much was clear long before Siena became the final upstart program to get sent home.
But that doesn’t mean there is no chance of a Cinderella story at this year’s tournament. In fact, one could argue that as many as three programs have a chance to complete a more accurate version of that timeless tale if one of them can cut down the nets on the first Monday in April.
If you take a trip back to childhood, you’ll remember that the actual story of Cinderella has a happy ending. It doesn’t end with the spell breaking at midnight and Cinderella wondering what could have been. But if you’ve followed only college basketball, you’re led to believe otherwise. The traditional Cinderella story in the NCAA Tournament features a team making a run to the sweet 16 or maybe the regional finals and once (George Mason), to the final four, but ultimately ends in defeat.
This season, Villanova, Xavier and Gonzaga all have the opportunity to complete the fairytale and pull off what would be among the greatest stories in the history of sports.
You probably don’t fully appreciate what these three programs have been able to accomplish. Along with Duke, they have the smallest undergraduate enrollments of the schools left in the tournament. In fact, they admit about a quarter of the amount of students that most of the sweet 16’s schools admit. Think about how much of a disadvantage it is when Jay Wright has to break it to a star recruit that professors at Villanova actually take attendance in class.
And while Duke has become a national brand, the other three have not. The Wildcats won the NCAA title in 1985, so they are certainly the most well-known. But since winning it all, they’ve actually missed the big dance more times than they have made it, including a stretch of five straight seasons at the beginning of this decade.
Xavier and Gonzaga have been far more consistent over the last ten years. The Musketeers have reached the regional finals twice in four years and the Zags have quickly evolved into a national power. But when you don’t play in a major conference, it’s virtually impossible to garner the respect you deserve.
When you look around at the rest of remaining field, you see large schools with endless budgets and big time tradition. It’s impossible for Villanova to match UConn dollar for dollar in the same way that is impossible for Xavier to rival the history of North Carolina.
That’s what makes these schools so worth rooting for.
The odds are stacked against this trio and that’s exactly the type story we’re looking for – the type we missed during the opening weekend.
Cinderella is still alive.
In much stronger form.