John P. Lopez – Reaching for the stars: How Houston is ushering in a new Final Four era

Mar 29, 2023; Houston, TX, USA; View of signage on a bridge outside of NRG Stadium before the Final Four. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

John P. Lopez – Reaching for the stars: How Houston is ushering in a new Final Four era

A mere three miles from NRG Stadium some 62 years ago, President John F. Kennedy asked, “Why does Rice play Texas? Why, some say, the Moon?

Today, many around here are asking, why Florida Atlantic?

Houston, the FAU Owls have landed. So has Miami. So has San Diego State. And of course, the blueish-blood UConn.

The natural inclination for those wishing for marquee value in the Houston Final Four is to huff in exasperation. The natural inclination is to ask why has this Final Four come here, now, with this assortment of lower-seeded teams and a combined public relations Q-rating of negative-gazillion?

But instead of wringing hands and clutching pearls, we should ask not what the tournament is doing for us, but what we are doing for the future of the tournament.

The game has changed. It will continue to change. And Houston, appropriately, is the flashpoint for an entirely new era. It should be embraced and emulated.

Instead of being upset you’re not seeing the Kentuckys, North Carolinas, and UCLAs here, know that your team, too, can make it this far with a little help from the NIL, the transfer portal, and quality coaching.

In a city of firsts, including the first domed stadium, the first and biggest indoor rodeo, and “Houston” being the first word spoken on the Moon, the seal on college basketball’s future has been broken.

These aren’t a bunch of nobodies and who’s thats. These teams have earned every bit of their respective runs to Houston. In fact, if Saturday’s national semifinals were played shirts-and-skins, with no identifiable logos making fans groan, no one would complain about a Final Four that included:

  • A team that started the year 14-0 and ranked No. 2 in the country, and could win its FIFTH national championship since 1999.
  • A team that lost in the Elite Eight a year ago, lost only five times in the mighty ACC this year, beat the No. 1-ranked team in the country handily, along with beating Indiana, Louisville, North Carolina, and Duke.
  • A team that arrived in Houston with a whopping 35-3 record, having beaten Tennessee and Kansas State along the way, and is one of just five teams ranked in the top 30 offensively and defensively.
  • A team that returned all five starters from last season’s 24-9 squad, added two key transfers and beat top-seeded Alabama, Ohio State, BYU, and Stanford along the way.

Three of those four teams were conference champs. Two beat No. 1 seeds. All were ranked in the final regular-season Top 25.

Those teams? UConn, Miami, Florida Atlantic, and San Diego State.

The names on the fronts of their jerseys may not be recognizable Tournament royalty, but this Houston Final Four field almost certainly will pave the way for more Madness and opportunities for programs that have the foresight to capitalize on capitalism.

When recent NCAA Name Image and Likeness rules that allowed collegians to profit while competing were implemented, the worry was that it would lead to bedlam and the end of a competitive playing field. The logic: Rich alumni bases of big schools would crush smaller schools’ chances of competing. But a funny thing happened on the way to the ATM. People forgot there are rich alumni and business magnates at every school all across the country. A lot of them want to win badly. And players benefit.

Concurrently, people shouted from high atop their ivory towers that the transfer portal and immediate eligibility would cause a free-for-all.

The skeptics were wrong on both fronts. The field of play has become much more balanced. Players everywhere no longer feel the need to stack themselves deep at big-conference rich schools. They can get theirs anywhere. And players who consequently found themselves lost on the benches of mega-powers realized a free market and playing time was out there waiting for them.

Miami, for example, leaned into NIL heavily, spearheaded by billionaire alumnus John Ruiz. Among those who joined the Hurricanes was star guard Nijel Pack, who earned an $800,000 NIL deal. San Diego State’s Matt Bradley reportedly has NIL deals approaching $500,000. Even Florida Atlantic’s Johnell Davis and Vladislav Goldin reportedly have six-figure NIL deals.

Then there are the coaches who beat the bushes for top transfer-portal players who could – and in these four teams’ cases did – spell the difference.

Of the 63 players on these Final Four rosters, 16 are transfers. Of the 20 players expected to start Saturday’s national semifinals, eight are transfers. That’s 40%.

It’s not an aberration, people. It’s a new era.

And it’s how your team, too, could find its way to glory. Welcome to Houston. And one small step to an altogether different basketball world.

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