Is Loyola the Last Cinderella?

Even before Loyola-Chicago won two games in the South Regional to make the Final Four and further ingratiate itself into the nation's hearts, the NCAA tournament saw its first true second-weekend, mid-major Cinderella team since Florida Gulf Coast in 2013.

If that designation strikes you as wrong, yes, teams from mostly mid-major conferences like Dayton, Wichita State (when it was in Loyola's Missouri Valley Conference) and Gonzaga had made Sweet 16s, Final Fours and, in the Zags' case a year ago, came within two minutes of winning a national title.

But with the resources those programs have, putting the pieces in place for an extended tournament run is simply not as difficult as it is for schools with far less recent basketball success like Loyola and FGCU. I explained this last year at this time, and most of the main points I made almost exactly a year ago still stand, despite Loyola's incredible run and the unprecedented upset in the first round by UMBC.

Since then, it's become clear to me that college basketball is going to change in massive ways over the course of the next three to five years.

For one, there's the FBI investigation that at least has the potential to bring a lot of big programs huge potential penalties and headaches for years to come. But I'm not totally convinced that it, in and of itself, will put the sport completely on its knees like some have predicted.

I do, however, think that many fewer top high school players will be playing college basketball in the coming years. The NBA, possibly partly because of the FBI investigation, is absolutely ready to move on from the "one-and-done" rule and establish more of a true minor league basketball system than exists in today's G-League. If the many of the top 50 or so high school graduates from 2017 in recruiting rankings were taken out of college basketball this year, the effects would be numerous.

Then, when you consider some NCAA schools want to implement a college baseball-esque "two-and-through" rule, top high school players — and even those below the elite recruiting grades — who might want to bet on themselves to improve under pro coaches would have to choose between college basketball or a professional developmental path.

No matter what rules are implemented by the NBA and NCAA, there's just no way around the fact that fewer top players in the traditionally "college" ages are going to be playing college basketball in the future, unless the NCAA looks itself dead in the eye about the current-day farce of "amateurism" and gets real about giving players a piece of the pie. Of course, the NCAA still has its head in the sand on that count.

And if I can be completely frank for a second, the NCAA probably deserves to have its basketball product undercut by a minor league system. The NBA, whether you like it or not, is the most important and most popular basketball organization in the world. Its teams know that the incentive structure and playing styles of college basketball are not often the best for NBA player development. It should be commended for wanting to change the status quo, while the NFL continues to allow NCAA football to serve as its farm system.

These coming changes lead me to wonder if Loyola-Chicago might be the last true Cinderella team for this era of college basketball.

Now, it's possible that mid-majors could keep going as deep as Loyola in the tournament. But without many of the country's best players, college basketball may well decline in importance and becoming a Final Four team might not mean as much due to the lesser competition.

And as we've seen in the past five years or so of the mega-conference era of college sports, teams in the bigger leagues hold more cards than in previous eras, whether it be budgets, TV money, scheduling power and opportunities, or locking out almost all of the at-large bids in any given year's 68-team NCAA field.

Even if many of the best high school players and pro prospects never play college basketball — or even consider it — in coming years, teams in big-money conferences will still lock down most of the next best players. And unfortunately, mid-major teams like Loyola could still have incredible, nationally ranked seasons from games 1 to 30 and then find themselves outside of the NCAA tournament because of a conference tournament slip-up and a highly flawed selection process that largely ignores the best performance-based metrics.

But enough about the negatives. This Loyola-Chicago run should be enjoyed thoroughly by anyone who loves the sport of basketball.

It's almost like too cheesy of a Disney Channel story, if we're being honest. Let's go through all of the ways. Obviously, there's Sister Jean, the 98-year-old nun chaplain, supporter, and advisor. There's the coach, a Catholic kid from Chicago who played in the same conference that the Ramblers dominated this season.

There's Loyola's special place in basketball history in integrating the sport, even though the school has been historically overshadowed in its own city by DePaul. The seven high school state champion players on the team. The two best friends from Kansas City on the same team, one of whom, Ben Richardson, played the game of his life in the regional final against Kansas State.

Then there's this incredible tournament run, where that most recent win to reach San Antonio was the only game that was decided before the last 10 seconds.

In recent years, we've had "surprise" Final Four teams, but they've taken the shape of low- or mid-seeded power conference teams like UConn, South Carolina, or Syracuse who suffered mid-season lulls in performance and then suddenly found a groove after Selection Sunday. Florida State could have even joined this club Saturday night if it weren't for a couple curious coaching decisions.

There's something a lot more satisfying as a fan to see a team that, while may be seeded below a lot of power conference teams, has been consistently good throughout the year and took its chances to beat good teams and won its conference convincingly.

This tournament seemed like it could be going off the rails with too many odd upsets at the end of the first weekend, but now the four teams left are an extremely worthy bunch who proved their mettle from November to March, and not just for four games. The NCAA needed a tournament like this, and a story like Loyola's. If this is the last dance for Cinderella as we've known it in college basketball, it's been one to cherish.

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