NCAA Tournament’s ‘Cinderella’ Stories Have Become a Popular Media Myth

NCAA Tournament's Cinderella Stories Have Become
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Mercer beats Duke? Harvard wins again? Despite what you read and hear, it's not as shocking as you might think

Myths die hard in the media, especially if there’s a good, familiar story undergirding them. So it is with the NCAA basketball tournament, and the notion of a “Cinderella team” emerging – some program without a storied, big-conference pedigree that makes a deep run, busting brackets along the way.

Certainly, it’s irresistible for sportswriters and pundits, offering a David-and-Goliath angle that can’t help but galvanize attention and buzz even among those with only a marginal interest in the games.

It’s a good story, all right. If only it were still true.

Sure, there are still traditional powers that tend to be in the championship chase year after year. But the so-called “one and done” rule, which essentially dictates that players spend at least one year in college (reaching the age of 19) before bolting to the National Basketball Assn., has seriously diminished any program’s claim to year-after-year supremacy, and heightened parity within the college ranks.

In the opening round, televised across the Turner Networks and CBS, lower-ranked teams have already produced some eye-popping upsets. That included Friday’s defeat of Duke by 14th-seeded Mercer and Harvard’s latest humbling of a significantly higher seed. The “Who is Mercer?” stories — spoiler alert: Small university in Georgia — began cropping up almost immediately.

Still, the Duke parading around in those uniforms today isn’t the one of the 1990s. Moreover, this Blue Devil squad was led by a freshman, Jabari Parker, who will likely be wearing an NBA uniform soon, while Mercer had a number of more experienced seniors on its roster.

Even so, one suspects a lot of the saps who picked Duke to win several games in tournament pools made those judgments based strictly on reputation, being unable to pick any of its players out of a lineup.

The real beneficiaries of perpetuating the Cinderella scenario, meanwhile, aren’t the players but the media and the coaches. Upsets help keep ratings high. For the coaches, performing well in the tournament has become the quickest ticket to higher-paying, higher-profile gigs, from Butler’s Brad Stevens graduating to the NBA to Florida Gulf Coast’s Andy Enfield, last year’s darling, who was promptly wooed away by USC. (Not surprisingly, one needn’t look hard to find headlines from 2013 proclaiming FGC a “Cinderella.”)

The tournament remains great fun because of its sudden-death format. And in a strange way, the dilution of talent has only made the games more unpredictable, and thus more intriguing.

Those running around talking about who fits this year’s glass slipper, however, are being fooled by a myth the media has no incentive to let go. And while the NCAA keeps rolling in dough despite a flawed system, those who view the tournament through the prism of what it once was are, inevitably, making a sucker’s bet.

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  1. Cramer says:

    Lowry’s claim of “heightened parity within the college ranks” is a myth that goes back to the 1980s. Back then the theory wasn’t the so-called “one and done” but it was that top players chose non-powerhouse teams so they could shine (big fish in small pond). The conspiracy theory that upsets are intentional because “upsets help keep ratings high” is even older.

    This year three lower seeded teams (9-16) made it to the Sweet Sixteen: Stanford (10), Tennessee (11), and Dayton (11). 1985 was the first year for the 64 team tournament. Three lower seeded teams also made it to the Sweet Sixteen in 1985 (11, 11, 12) and in 1986 (11, 12, 14). Three or more lower seeded teams made it to the Sweet Sixteen in the following years: 1985, 1986, 1990, 1991, 1994, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2002, 2008, 2010-2014. The average is 2.5 teams per year.

    The scientific method is superior to the gut-feeling method. Just do the work.

  2. Cramer says:

    The only myth is what has been said in this article. The games have not become “more unpredictable” as Brian Lowry claims. The number of upsets have remained consistent for at least the last 30 years.

    On average 25% of “2nd Round” games will be upsets (i.e. seeds 9-16 winning). That’s exactly what happened this year. 8 out of 32: Pitt, Stanford, Tenn, Dayton, Harvard, N Dak St, SF Austin, and Mercer.

    On average 10% of seeds 13-16 will win “2nd Round.” That’s 1.6 teams per year on average (meaning 1 team one year, 2 teams the next year). This year one team won: Mercer.

    On average 50% of seeds 10-12 winning in the “2nd Round” will win again and advance to the Sweet 16. Dayton (11), Harvard (12), and N. Dak St (12) played today. Only Dayton won. Typically, two teams seeded 10-12 will make it to the Sweet 16. Those are typically the CINDERELLAS. Seeds 9 & 13-16 rarely make it to the Sweet 16 (<3%). There have been only six #13 seeds, two #14 seeds, and one #15 seed (last year's Fl Gulf Coast) to advance to the Sweet 16. Is it Fl Gulf Coast that skewed Brian Lowry's idea of games becoming "more unpredictable?"

    A 16 seed team has never won (same this year). A #1 seed team makes it to the Sweet Sixteen 95% of the time. This also means the 8 and 9 seed teams only make it to the Sweet Sixteen 5% of the time.

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