Smaller schools still fight for respect

One of tonight’s Sweet 16 matchups will pit Cornell against Kentucky in perhaps one of the best examples of brain against brawn.

Kentucky has four players who will be eventual NBA lottery picks. Cornell backup forward Eitan Chemerinsky can solve a Rubik’s Cube in three minutes.

Not since the Notre Dame-Miami “Catholics versus Convicts” game have we seen such a stark contrast between two schools in a high-stakes match.

Improbable matchups like this are supposed to be what the NCAA tournament is all about. Everyone loves a good Cinderella story.

But you can bet that the folks at the NCAA would like to see Cornell and other mid-majors bow out before the weekend.

Underdogs are commonly embraced in March, but not by the folks running the tournament. Teams from outside the traditional power conferences make for a nice storyline in the first two rounds of games, but they worry the event’s organizers  when they advance further than that.

The reason, of course, is money. Mid-majors don’t drive up television ratings. They don’t sell tickets. They don’t create a buzz.

And so they have to go.

Don’t believe the deck is stacked against them? Just look at how schools from small conferences are seeded once they earn their bids. Cornell took on all comers this season and posted an impressive résumé, but the Big Red was still slapped with a 12 seed. Meanwhile, Florida, one of the final teams to make it into the field, was still somehow pegged as a 10 seed.

Worse yet, mid-majors are frequently pitted against each other in the first round of games. This year, teams like Butler and Northern Iowa had to pick off one of their own kind before advancing to face power conference teams.

And making the field without an automatic bid is treacherous for teams without branding power. If North Carolina, UCLA and UConn had shown any signs of life this season, they surely would have gotten the benefit of the doubt over a lowly team like Utah State.

College basketball’s mid-major quandary stems from the fact that it is driven by money and stars, especially since it became a daycare center for the NBA once the league banned players from entering directly out of high school. As popular as Cornell and St. Mary’s might be at this point, nothing will outdraw an Ohio State-Kentucky game that will be billed as Evan Turner against John Wall.

It’s safe to say that matches that feature future No. 1 picks will draw in more viewers than games that feature a surprise hero whose name no one knows how to spell. My hat’s off to you, though, Ali Farokhmanesh.

Maybe fans’ patience with small schools isn’t so thin, though. George Mason was embraced for the entirety of its historic Final Four run in 2006, as was Davidson in 2008.

But their popularity was easily explained. George Mason had a way of repeatedly one-upping itself with its performances. Davidson had a rising star in Stephen Curry. And both teams played entertaining styles of basketball showcased in several close games.

But any of the underdogs left in this field still have a ways to go before they reach that level of respect. Despite having one of the most efficient offenses in the country, Cornell’s basketball team still has to fight off the perception of being bookworms and Andy Bernard references.

Of course, the Revenge of the Nerds storyline is also bothering some Kentucky players. Kentucky forward DeMarcus Cousins told reporters at his Wednesday press conference, “It’s not a spelling bee.” Ah, spoken like Biff from Back to the Future.

After Northern Iowa upset Kansas, a Cornell takedown of Kentucky would make this the year of the mid-major. A final of Northern Iowa against St. Mary’s or Cornell might just make college basketball implode.

Hey, if your bracket is going down, you might as well take everyone with you.

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