Has Winning Become Stuck in the Middle?

First off, I need to keep something in perspective. March of 2020 brought a deadly pandemic that left many families shattered through the loss of loved ones. The tragedy and sorrow of the years that have followed are nothing short of crushing. The world changed due to COVID-19, and, as a planet, we are still recovering from its aftermath. The reason I wanted to start the column this way is because I'm going to pivot and discuss this from a much more inconsequential angle.

The pandemic is more than three-years-old. In this country, however, eyebrows truly didn't raise until March 11th, 2020. That's the night the NBA brought a forewarning with the suspension of their season. Over the next 48 hours, college basketball was take the same route. The culmination of the conference championship stretch would be washed away, at least for that campaign. What promised to be anticipation for the most chaotic finish in years would never happen. However, in the midst of nothingness, a trend might have been developing, with the effects of that lingering aftertaste alive and well today.

Since the turn of the century, the power of Division I hoops has been "centralized." Michigan State made a championship run in Y2K. After that, though, the Atlantic Shelf started to house more than just ocean water. From 2001-2019, programs based in Atlantic Coast states won 16 of 19 national titles (including the last 6 of that time period). Basketball hierarchy presided on the East Coast. Challengers did rise up from other parts of the country. In the end, though, the trophy was mainly lifted east of the Appalachian Mountains.

The 2019-2020 season may have sparked a turn. As many conferences headed into their respective postseasons, the national rankings told a different tale than those of previous years. Yes, Duke, Villanova, Maryland, and Virginia were all in decent positions to make deep tourney runs. But the most major of contenders were seen in a westward projection. The middle of the country appeared ready for a breakthrough.

Kansas was the consensus favorite going in, with All-Americans Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson leading the way and a roster with staying power. Dayton provided some oomph to the Mid-Major revolution that included Gonzaga and San Diego State. The Flyers sported the actual National Player of the Year in Obi Toppin. Baylor looked to complete their turnaround story from the program's depths of nearly 20 years prior. Creighton, having found their footing in the new Big East, were rising in the polls as if they were reaching for crest of a roller coaster peak. And Michigan State, ever the stalwart, continued their journey to a raise a second trophy this century.

Even though no trophy was handed out that April, the groundwork may have been set for the next couple of years. Did schools between the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains dominate the entirety of the sport? Of course not. But they made their bones at the right time. In 2021, Baylor finished off that astounding rise from the Dave Bliss-led scandal to a title (even though the school has other skeletons out in the open). Last spring, that younger portion of the Kansas roster fulfilled the promise of two seasons earlier, hoisting the trophy in the Final Four with three East Coast blue bloods surrounding them. Now, will the trend roll on into 2023?

Going into this week's contests, programs from the Midwest, Plains, and inner Gulf Coast made up 10 of the top 14 ranked teams in the Associated Press poll. The top three consisted of Alabama, Houston, and Purdue, while schools such as Marquette and Kansas State have come from off-the-radar status to potential tourney dark-horses.

With the Bears and Jayhawks maneuvering to prime position, the Big XII will work for a third-straight championship run. Could Texas overcome losing their head coach and find their way to the final podium (leaving the conference a parting gift before sliding over to the SEC)?

The Big East's midwestern arm is pretty well represented, as the Golden Eagles, the Bluejays, and a Xavier program being led by an old friend. Connecticut and Providence have done a bang-up job standing up for the eastern wing (original) side of the league. But could this be the year that one of the western quintet (DePaul and Butler notwithstanding, this year) reaches the final weekend for the first time since the new conference was formed in 2013?

Then, there's Houston, possibly the best program to never win a national title. The school is now seeing its third period of sustained success. The Cougars could not grab the brass ring under legendary coach Guy V. Lewis. Can Kelvin Sampson finally lift the program over that final hurdle and be the last team standing?

For years, the East Coast has held the baton for the highest level of college hoops. That baton may have finally been ripped away by the middle of the country. But how long can they hold on to it?

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