The March Toward March: What a historic NCAA tournament can tell us about the future of college basketball

The UConn Huskies’ fifth national title catapults the sport into a new era.

Adama Sanogo and Isaiah Wong fight for a loose ball during a Final Four game.

“The March Toward March” is a column by Curran Rastogi about men’s college basketball teams and their journeys to March Madness.

As the final scraps of confetti were cleaned off of the court at NRG Stadium, the 2022-2023 season came to an end. It was a truly historic tournament (especially for my home state of New Jersey), with the second 16-seed upset, a Sweet Sixteen run for Princeton and a new national championship-winning head coach in Dan Hurley. The tournament and season also represent the start of a new era in the college basketball landscape.

First of all, congratulations to the UConn Huskies for pulling off the most dominant national championship tournament run ever. The Huskies trailed for a grand total of 5 minutes and 22 seconds in the entire tournament, and if you take away the first half of their first game, that number would be down to a total of 55 seconds. Also, congratulations to Jim Nantz, long-time play-by-play announcer for the Final Four, who announced that this would be his last Final Four. Nantz is a college basketball legend, and his familiar, friendly voice will be missed in future tournaments.

But, back to the main point of this article, this tournament represents a paradigm shift for college basketball. We, as college basketball fans, saw a new side of the sport with changes in NIL, college eligibility, the transfer portal and recruiting. The result? One of the most memorable tournaments in history.

For years, NCAA Athletes in major sports like football and basketball have received recruiting money under the table. But, after the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling that allowed athletes to make money off their name, image and likeness, the money has been less of a secret. And it’s definitely made an impact. The best example of this is the Miami basketball team.

Sophomore guard Nijel Pack infamously transferred to Miami after signing a NIL deal reportedly worth $800,000 that included a car. Senior guard Isaiah Wong threatened to enter the transfer portal after seeing Pack’s NIL deal but ultimately stayed at Miami, receiving more deals. These were two of the best players on Miami’s Final Four team. While there’s nothing wrong with players taking NIL money, Miami doesn’t make the Final Four without NIL. It just demonstrates how important NIL can be if used correctly, as Miami made it to its first Final Four in school history.

The extra year of eligibility due to COVID has manifested itself in teams like San Diego State. SDSU had four of these seniors in their rotation who played big roles for the team. Guards Adam Seiko and Matt Bradley and forwards Nathan Mensah and Aguek Arop have all exhausted their eligibility. Without these four players and their eligibility, SDSU wouldn’t have gone on the tournament run they did. The Aztecs were full of talent and these players will have to be replaced on top of whoever they lose in the transfer portal. While the extra year of COVID eligibility will not be a factor in a few years, the prevalence of “COVIDseniors” may lead to more players playing college basketball longer. This includes future graduate transfer students.

The element that has undoubtedly had the greatest impact is the transfer portal. Looking at the top transfer portal teams, there is a pattern with their success in the NCAA tournament. The No. 3 team in 247Sports’ transfer class rankings is Texas, who was very nearly in the Final Four. Other teams making up the top of the leaderboard include Arkansas, who upset Kansas in the Round of 32, Missouri, who made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2018 and Miami, whose two transfers ended up being the two of the most important players on the team. This year’s tournament demonstrates that, as a program, hitting the transfer portal and getting the best players will lead to success in college basketball. Looking ahead to next year, centers Hunter Dickinson and Kel’el Ware and guards Max Abmas and Caleb Love will be players who can make immediate impacts for their respective teams. The transfer portal’s importance has been on full display after Georgetown and ex-Providence head coach Ed Cooley recruited players to join him at Georgetown while still officially at Providence.

Lastly, high school recruiting has changed with the allure of G-League Ignite and Overtime Elite. Before, blue chip prospects had to spend a year at college or go overseas, but now some of the best players are choosing to play professional basketball in the U.S. and then move to the NBA. Jalen Green infamously did it last year, and this year the prospective No. 2 overall pick, Scoot Henderson, played for G-League Ignite. Along with that, Amen and Ausar Thompson are both projected to be high lottery picks after their season at Overtime Elite. Matas Buzelis, 247Sports’ No. 5 player, is also headed to G-League Ignite and with success may go as high as No. 1 overall. With these options being legitimate opportunities for players to go professional, it presents a new challenge for colleges. Now they must compete with other leagues that can officially pay players in order to land high-profile recruits. This may drain some of the NBA talent from college basketball.

All of these factors helped make college basketball thrilling to pay attention to this year. While it’s uncertain whether or not college basketball’s new era will prove good or bad for the sport, it’s undeniable that a new era is upon us.

“The March Toward March” runs every Thursday