March Madness Wrapup
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
March Madness marches on in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament, and after tonight, just eight teams will remain of the original field of 65.
Joining us now to talk about what we've seen so far is our Friday regular, sportswriter Stefan Fatsis. Hi ya.
STEFAN FATSIS: Hey, Robert.
SIEGEL: And this is a tournament that's been all about upsets. Butler University upset Syracuse last night, and that means that two of the four top seeds have already been eliminated. There are schools that we've never associated with the final stages of the championship still around. What do you make of it?
FATSIS: Well, it's a nice narrative. You had Cornell of the Ivy League, Xavier of the Atlantic 10 Conference. They lost to higher-seeded teams from some of the power conferences last night. But you also have Butler, as you mentioned, and Northern Iowa and St. Mary's. And what I think it reflects is a narrowing of the gap between the elites and the so-called mid-major schools, and partly that's because many of these teams have had success, which makes them appealing to recruits coming out of high school. Butler has been to the Sweet 16 three times in eight years. This is not a fluke.
And you also tend to have fewer early defections to the NBA from these mid-majors. Last year, 24 freshmen, sophomores or juniors left college and were drafted into the NBA. Nineteen of them came from power-conference schools. Losing those players hurts those teams, having players who stick around longer helps the other schools.
SIEGEL: Now, one of last night's losers, as you mentioned, was Cornell. Cornell lost to a powerhouse that will lose underclassmen to the NBA, Kentucky. Still, it was the first time in more than 30 years that an Ivy League team won two games in the NCAAs, a subject that you write about in an article in Slate.com. What's your take?
FATSIS: Well, it happened the only way that this could happen. Everything had to align exactly perfectly. Cornell started four seniors, who had gotten a lot better over their four years. They were the right kids in the right place, and why you need a series of fortunate events to succeed nationally is that the Ivy League schools don't give athletic scholarships.
But they do provide more financial aid than most observers realize, especially to low- and middle-income students. Financially, it is a very short bridge to full athletic scholarships in the Ivy League, and I think it's a bridge that the Ivies might want to think about crossing for basketball.
FLATOW: But isn't the appeal of the Ivy League that it doesn't play everyone else's dirty game in college sports?
FATSIS: Yeah, that is the appeal. But at the same time, the Ivies could maintain or even toughen their academic standards. They could impose tougher recruiting standards than the NCAA, and then they would attract the very smartest of the very best players who turn the league down now for a totally free ride and better competition elsewhere.
I think if you had Cornell or Penn or Harvard contending nationally, in the most visible revenue-generating sport, I think that would send a powerful message to the establishment. And the collective prestige of the Ivy League gives it more sway, I think, than a single Stanford or a Northwestern. But there is this fear among Ivy presidents that joining the rat race would be a disaster, or even being perceived as sympathetic to it would be bad. I think, frankly, it's at least worth a study or a committee, and certainly the Ivy League is capable of doing that.
SIEGEL: Of studying, yes. Now, speaking of academics and the tournament, Education Secretary Arne Duncan is on a mission to pressure the NCAA to get its grades up. What's his proposal?
FATSIS: Well, Duncan is a basketball player. He played at Harvard and then in Australia for a couple of years, and now he's been making the rounds. And what he wants to do is bar from post-season competition schools that fail to graduate at least 40 percent of their players.
If the proposal were in effect now, a dozen schools wouldn't have been eligible for the current NCAA tournament. He's also noted that the grad rates for African-American players are what he calls shockingly low. Five of the 65 teams in the tournament graduated 20 percent or less of their black players who entered between 1999 and 2002, and in that's in six years or less. And that doesn't count players who turn pro early.
SIEGEL: Thank you, Stefan, have a great weekend.
FATSIS: Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: Stefan Fatsis, the author of "A Few Seconds Of Panic" and "Word Freak," joins us most Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports.