By John Fanta
FOX Sports College Basketball Writer
When the calendar turned to March earlier this year, the majority of sports fans probably would have heard Saint Peter’s and thought of the basilica in Rome.
If you then clarified that you were referring to the school, I would venture to guess that the majority of folks would not have been able to point out its location on a US map or would have known that you were talking about a university.
But on the third Thursday of March 2022, millions gathered around TVs to take in a day of NCAA Tournament games. By that night, the small university in Jersey City, New Jersey, was no longer an afterthought.
An institution that few knew before they woke up that day became a sports and news story with its historic upset of blue blood Kentucky in the Big Dance.
Those Peacocks and their Elite Eight run that captured the sports world are the latest case of the beauty of the NCAA Tournament.
It’s a three-week event that is unrivaled in its pageantry, drama, underdog stories, shocking finishes, atmospheres, personalities and moments.
It’s where Sister Jean lives.
It’s where Ron Hunter falls off his stool as his son, RJ, hits the biggest shot of his life that can tug at your heartstrings.
It’s where UMBC goes from a no-name to the first and only No. 16 seed to defeat a No. 1.
It’s where Kris Jenkins can become a hero by taking one shot.
The NCAA Tournament is a tradition, one that forges on and continues to deliver the goods. It reflects what is fun about college sports, and for that three-week period, it seems like the rest of the issues come to a stop.
We’ll see if that continues to be the case when the calendar shifts to March in future years. Because right now those issues and the future of college sports hang in the balance.
The amateurism model in college athletics as we once knew it is not heading out — it’s already gone, thanks to NIL. But there are too many cases to count in college sports where it’s basically pay-for-play. Regulation? That doesn’t feel possible, and how could it be? Congress has said there’s nothing it can do to form rules or uniformity on NIL. All of these changes were going to come with adapting, and there’s plenty that must be figured out.
The state of college sports is on the minds of anyone who works in, participates in or covers them. Someone said to me recently that things seem to have calmed down since it was announced that UCLA and USC are joining the Big Ten in 2024. But how could things be calm after that news? (Which, by the way, had to have been one of the best-kept secrets in the history of college sports.)
After the Bruins and Trojans announced their move, there might not have been any actual movement, but it’s only a matter of time until Notre Dame makes a move, or Clemson switches conferences, or we see some sort of shift from the Big 12, Pac-12 and acc. All bets are off. Regionalization was and is out the window. Money trumps everything, and football is obviously the bus driver.
This shifting was inevitable and expected. The dollars football generates are always going to be in a class of their own and more than what college basketball can produce. That said, if we’re having to debate the thrills that the college hoops postseason brings compared to the College Football Playoff, let’s face it: It’s not a contest.
Amid all these discussions and changes, it’s easy to propose the solution of letting football be football. But a pigskin-only breakup from every other sport seems easier said than done. Every athletic department in the country that has football relies on it to generate the revenue that allows the other sports the school operates to function; they all fall under one umbrella now.
A football break-off would make sense since the way that sport is governed is so different from the others. But if this break happens, and let’s say the SEC and Big Ten form their own pact of some sort that could look like the AFC and NFC, they will be in their own world. The NCAA — and the best event it has — could be looked at and jeopardized.
Just listen to what Jeff Goodman said on “The Field of 68” podcast earlier this month.
There’s no telling what’s going to happen next in college sports, but the movement is only just beginning. For the NCAA to maintain its existence, though, it needs to maintain March Madness because the revenue generation and television contracts with Turner and CBS are the lifeblood of that association.
Preserving the tournament is obviously of utmost priority, but the philosophy of someone such as SEC commissioner Greg Sankey and the other big boys in college sports is just so harshly different from the mindsets of Saint Peter’s, Loyola Chicago, VCU and some of the other Cinderellas that shine in the tournament. These schools are not on the same page as the big boys. In fact, the two parties aren’t even reading the same book.
When it comes to basketball, the conference restructuring creates certain issues. But everything is made clearer because a selection committee controls which 68 teams are heading to the tournament, and there’s a window open for the “little guy” to get a chance.
My plea to the powers that be, even those overseeing the super football conferences being formed that don’t have to acknowledge it because they’re swimming in a Scrooge McDuck pool of gold: Whatever you do, don’t mess with the NCAA Tournament .
John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.
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