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Tourney shows experienced players making world of difference in March

Mike Krzyzewski had a good point, as he usually does, last week when filing a minor complaint about the Atlantic 10 having six teams in the NCAA Tournament. The Atlantic Coast Conference also sent six teams to the Big Dance, which suggested the two conferences were somehow on the same level when they are not.

Let’s not kid ourselves.

The ACC is a better league even though the two conferences were 8-8 against one another this season. The record was a tad skewed. It wasn’t as if George Mason bowled over Virginia. George Washington beat Maryland and Miami. UMass beat up lowly Boston College, and Virginia Commonwealth pounded Virginia Tech.

“I’ll get in trouble probably for saying it,” Krzyzewski said after the brackets were announced. “Like the Atlantic 10, they’re a really good conference. I hear people saying there are six teams in there. Come on. I mean, they’re good, but put them in our conference and go through the meat grinder that our conference has to go through.”

The ACC is deeper and richer with talent, but the tournament has shown that teams from mid-major conferences such as the A-10 can play with anyone. They’re not stacked with NBA draft picks like Kentucky, a basketball factory that started five freshmen Sunday and has five others to replace them.

Duke has a premier player in Jabari Parker, who probably didn’t even receive the obligatory form letter from schools like Dayton and Mercer. Really, why waste a stamp on a player who had Coach K in his family room? Parker may only play one season at Duke before heading for the big money waiting for him.

And that’s precisely the problem with many teams from power conferences. They have too many players worried about the next level without mastering the current one. Parker is a terrific player who can dominate in numerous ways. He can play in the NBA, but he’d be better with another year or two in college. He’s one example of an overall issue.

Many superpowers have better players from top to bottom, but it doesn’t mean they have better basketball teams. Thus, we get March Madness. The teams at the top of the ACC – Virginia, Syracuse and Duke – aren’t as strong as the top ACC teams were years ago when kids stayed in school long enough to find the college bookstore.

Understand, I’m not here to determine whether prospects should stay in school or take the money while they can. That’s their decision. All it takes is one injury to wash away a life of riches. College isn’t for everyone. They have a right to work. LeBron James would have made a mockery of college ball. I get it.

But if we accept the idea of one-and-done players, why can’t we make it two and done or, better yet, three and done? I’m guessing coaches like Krzyzewski, who for years was able to keep and develop his players, would support that arrangement. It would come at the expense of mid-major programs, which would have a tougher time keeping up.

Marquette, an independent, was the last mid-major team to win a title, in 1977. In recent years, the gap has narrowed between big-time programs and mid-majors. At some point, sooner than later, two things are bound to happen: a mid-major will win an NCAA championship and a 16th seed will dump a No. 1.

You can have the McDonald’s All-Americans. I’ll take McBuckets. Doug McDermott was barely recruited out of high school before playing for his father at Creighton. He could have gone to the NBA last season, but he stayed for his senior year, helped his team earn a third seed and pushed his own stock through the roof.

Look around at the tournament. My brackets look like a rough draft. Wichita State was undefeated and earned a top seed before running into Kentucky. Harvard beat Cincinnati and could have beaten Michigan State. Connecticut needed overtime to beat Saint Joseph’s en route to the Sweet 16. Gonzaga beat Oklahoma State.

Tenth-seeded Stanford isn’t a mid-major, but it’s also no basketball power. The unranked Cardinal relied on their maturity and experience to take down a more talented team in Kansas. It’s becoming more frequent. Mid-majors are making a greater impact because their players almost always stick around through their senior years.

It’s reaching a point where upsets aren’t really all that shocking once you start peeling back layers and seeing the details.

You know why a team like Mercer can knock off Duke? Or why Dayton can beat Syracuse and Ohio State? It’s because good Division I players develop and grow into great teams. Krzyzewski, the best coach of his generation, said as much himself while fawning over Mercer and repeatedly referring to them as “men.” Parker was held in check by Jakob Gallon, hardly a household name.

Gallon is a sixth-year senior and 24 years old. Parker is a 19-year-old freshman.

Dayton started two seniors and 22-year-old redshirt junior Jordan Sibert. Vee Sanford, who beat Ohio State in the final seconds, is another senior. They’re mature men.

Virginia was the only ACC team remaining Sunday after North Carolina, Pittsburgh, N.C. State, Duke and Syracuse lost. The A-10 had one team, Dayton, still standing. The ACC is better, but we’ve been reminded again that a group of men playing together can beat superior players on any given day.

Coach K should know. Lehigh was a 15th seed when it knocked out Duke two years ago. Mercer, a 14th seed, reached the Sweet 16. It’s not a fluke. It looks more like a trend.