MANHATTAN — Kansas State freshmen Marcus Foster and Wesley Iwundu have never played Kentucky. They hadn’t even seen the scouting film on the SEC powerhouse that was being put together by their coaches.
Yet they were already intimately familiar with them.
You see, Iwundu played on the same Houston-area AAU team as Kentucky freshmen Andrew and Aaron Harrison, which was coached by the twins’ father. Foster played against them on a rival AAU program out of Dallas. And as Iwundu and Foster were trying to usher their Wildcats to the NCAA tournament this season, they caught plenty of games involving those other Wildcats on television.
“The first thing I thought about was the twins,” Iwundu said when he saw that No. 9 seed Kansas State would be playing No. 8 seed Kentucky on Friday in St. Louis.
“I knew from the jump, playing against them last summer, that they are going to be pros,” Foster added. “The Harrison twins are very talented scorers. Andrew takes care of the ball well. Aaron can score. And Julius Randle is a monster down there in the paint.”
So much for the Kansas State coaches putting together that scouting tape. They might as well ask Foster for a run-down.
Which raises a question: Has some of the mystery that made the NCAA tournament so intriguing over the years been slowly stripped away? After all, there is an ever-expanding summer circuit for traveling teams and so many games now can be found on television or online, along with expert (and not-so-expert) analysis via social media outlets.
“I don’t know if I buy into that,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “I always thought the mystery of the NCAA is the potential upsets, and that kind of stuff, where you’re dealing with Cinderellas, and that one player that comes out of nowhere to put his team on their back. There are so many unique stories that come along with this thing.”
They may be unique. They just might not necessarily be novel.
Think back to 1991. When Richmond became the first No. 15 seed to upset a No. 2 seed in Syracuse, how many casual fans knew anything about the Spiders?
Fast forward two decades, when Richmond was back in the NCAA tournament as a No. 12 seed. Several of their players had grown up on the AAU circuit, competing against friends who wound up at marquee programs. The Spiders had become regulars on TV. And they were suddenly a trendy pick to spring a couple of upsets, which they did in advancing to the Sweet 16.
“Every team is well-prepared and well-scouted, so players go in, and they’re not caught off guard by what people can do,” Baylor coach Scott Drew explained. “Back in the day, when you were relying on VHS tape, and sometimes you didn’t get all the tape in. I think definitely you could surprise some people at that time.”
That’s not to say there aren’t still surprises. Just ask Georgetown, Duke and Missouri, all of them No. 2 seeds that fell to 15 seeds in the past two NCAA tournaments.
But even then, enough people had heard of the “Dunk City” boys from Florida Gulf Coast before their upset of the Hoyas. Lehigh and Norfolk State were at least on the radar of college basketball junkies, even if they weren’t necessarily the belles of the ball.
One of the big reasons for that was television. Even if fans hadn’t seen their games, they at least had the opportunity, whether it was on networks or live streams offered by their schools.
This season, for example, ESPN covered 957 games across its many platforms. Throw in the games on CBS, Fox Sports and the multitude of other channels, and the number of college basketball games available to fans stretched into the thousands.
Never heard of No. 16 seed Albany? You must have missed the seven appearances the Great Danes made on ESPN3 this season. Scratching your head at their opponent Tuesday night, Mount St. Mary’s? The Mountaineers were on television nine times during the regular season.
“In terms of knowing each other, I think that we would all be surprised how much kids know each other,” Texas coach Rick Barnes said, “and probably how much some of them, maybe are in contact with each other more than you think through the social media now.”
Then again, none of this necessarily makes the NCAA tournament any less interesting.
In fact, all those connections between players and coaches, all those games beamed into living rooms and all those stories that have already been told may just make it more fascinating than ever.
“I think,” Self said, “the intrigue and mystery is still there.”