Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins is a classic “one-and-done” star of an NCAA power conference. Averaging about 16 points, he’ll likely be a lottery pick in this summer’s NBA draft after leading the Jayhawks to a 10th straight Big 12 title.
But perhaps forgotten in his brother’s stardom is Nick, a senior on the Wichita State Shockers 160 miles away. The brothers themselves are close—they and a third brother at Southeastern University share their Christian faith as much as basketball—but their teams are dividing the state of Kansas and the country. They’re a microcosm of NCAA parity.
Nick’s Shockers made the Final Four last year as a 9-seed. But this year, they earned the title as the nation’s last unbeaten team. Tough-minded but soft-hearted coach Gregg Marshall gets his kids to play smart but “angry,” no matter the opponent or the score. Stars of the Missouri Valley Conference, the Shockers are perhaps better than the Jayhawks, and they have a legitimate chance of bringing a championship in the resurgence of small-conference basketball.
But the Shockers aren’t the only lesser-known school looking to make noise this year. The Creighton Blue Jays feature coach-of-the-year candidate Greg McDermott and his son Doug, a player-of-the-year candidate. The St. Louis Billikens have knocked on the Top 10 while trying to knock a running joke that their mascot is the Grinch from Dr. Seuss. San Diego State has also knocked on the Top 10, now with a school-record fifth straight NCAA appearance.
Nine conferences in all were represented in the AP Top 25 late in the season. Powerhouse schools like the Tar Heels, Cardinals, and Jayhawks have had to share the limelight with names like the Shockers, Billikens, and Cyclones. That’s all the more odds against the Wiggins brothers meeting in the NCAA tournament, but anything can happen in the Field of 68.
It’s playing out March 18 in Dayton, Ohio, and it all leads to Arlington, Texas, where 80,000 fans at the Final Four April 5-7 could break attendance records. But this newfound competition and hype on the floor hasn’t insulated the NCAA from the nation’s changing sports climate.
For the first time since 2005, the NCAA will utilize only one domed stadium (in Indianapolis) for the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight rounds. There’s a reason for that: Attendance has been dropping at some tournament sites. Thank the economy, ever-widening televisions, and innovations like ESPN’s six-channel “megacast” of the football BCS Championship Game in January.
While 2013 saw a rebound, 2012 regionals in Atlanta and St. Louis stadiums barely drew 24,000. Those crowds could fit in an arena like the ACC’s Greensboro Coliseum. This year, the NCAA tapped Anaheim’s Honda Center and Memphis’ FedEx Forum, which seat 18,000 apiece. Along with Madison Square Garden, the NCAA appears to be hoping the intimate but urban experience will sell what the basketball itself couldn’t.
Even then, though, everyday fans of many schools aren’t looking to spend their year’s vacation on a wild weekend of Madness that’s not even the Final Four. The Wiggins brothers and NCAA parity make for great TV, but that may turn the stadium experience into the “Suite” Sixteen, a different kind of “Elite.” Here’s to the real Shockers being the basketball team, not the ticket prices.