SAN DIEGO -- Stephen F. Austin’s Jacob Parker and his teammates were treated like royalty. Well, the Lumberjacks, a 12-seed in San Diego, felt like kings as they climbed onto a coach bus that was led by a police escort to their team’s hotel following a 77-75 overtime NCAA tournament win against VCU at the Viejas Arena on Friday night.
"I think the police escort is pretty cool," Parker said Saturday. "Me and Thomas [Walkup] were talking in the room [about it] the other day. The Gatorade and the water in the locker room is nice."
Stephen F. Austin has enjoyed blue-chip perks in San Diego that were rare in the Southland Conference. Like most mid-major programs, the Lumberjacks can’t match the resources, finances, marketability, legacies or TV dollars enjoyed by their BCS-level peers.
The school’s operating budget for athletics is $14 million, or nearly $70 million below Sunday opponent UCLA’s athletics operating budget, according to the government’s Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act database.
Sunday’s matchups at Viejas Arena illustrate the line between the game’s haves and have-nots. Top-seeded Arizona, a Pac-12 school with a rich basketball history, will face Gonzaga, an 8-seed. And Stephen F. Austin will attempt to upset UCLA, a 4-seed competing a few hours from Los Angeles.
If these games were drag races, they’d pit a pair of Porsches against a couple of Corollas, on the surface, at least. But this isn’t college football.
A legit conversation about separating the top football programs from the rest of the Division I teams has reached new levels in recent years. It’s a valid discussion.
But the line in college basketball is murkier. Sunday’s games in San Diego prove as much.
There’s talent everywhere. The top programs might have the inside track to the nation’s best preps, but the one-and-done culture is not prevalent at the mid-major level, so, often, players stay and develop. That’s how a Stephen F. Austin, a team led by upperclassmen, wins 29 games in a row and earns a slot in the round of 32.
Gonzaga’s Sam Dower, Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr. and Przemek Karnowski didn’t enter school with the same prep accolades as Arizona’s top players, and they don’t have the same NBA hopes, either. But Aaron Gordon & Co. will have a tough time against an experienced Gonzaga team that hurts opponents inside and outside.
There are obvious differences between the programs, though.
When Arizona desired a new practice facility, NBA standout Richard Jefferson donated $3.5 million to the school. The Richard Jefferson Gymnasium gives Arizona’s players 24-hour access to a gym that they use for skill development and strength training.
Freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson said the practice facility factored into his decision to attend Arizona.
"It was pretty great to see that practice facility, to know 24 hours you can go in there and work out whenever you want," he said. "I thought that was a big step for me, and I knew if I wanted to be great, I knew I had to spend countless hours in there, so I thought that was pretty big."
Coach Sean Miller said the practice facility -- once considered a trinket for select programs -- is an essential component for a Division I squad today. But the former Xavier coach also suggested that the chasm between schools from the top and middle tiers of college basketball is shrinking.
"I think, sometimes, you almost categorize college football and college basketball as if it’s the same when we all know it’s different," Miller said. "Places like Xavier and Gonzaga, they’re not mid-major. Dayton is not. The way they travel, the talent level they have on their team, their coaches. Those universities put all their eggs in that basketball [basket] to be as good as they possibly can be."
Although there’s a $46 million gap between the operating budgets for athletics at Arizona and Gonzaga, according to the EADA website, the West Coast Conference’s perennial champ has access to a practice facility inside the McCarthy Athletic Center, which was completed in 2004.
Gonzaga might not have Arizona’s brand, but the Bulldogs, who’ve made more NCAA tournament appearances than the Wildcats in the past 10 seasons, possess a product with a strong track record.
"I don’t know that there is any difference in the resources, especially when it comes to recruiting," coach Mark Few said about Arizona. "I think they’re able to draw, you know, off the traditions maybe of the national championship and Final Fours and the pro players they’ve had. They’ve done a nice job with that. And, obviously, sometimes league affiliation comes into play, but we fight like crazy to dispel that and try to get guys to look at the program as a whole. Resource wise, more seats in their building but not a big deal. Everything is probably pretty close."
Stephen F. Austin coach Brad Underwood subscribes to a similar philosophy as his program prepares to face a UCLA team that features multiple NBA prospects.
On Saturday, UCLA coach Steve Alford told reporters that NBA scouts have attended 88 of his team’s 100 practices this season. The Bruins have 11 national titles. Stephen F. Austin just won the first NCAA tournament game in the program’s history.
The Lumberjacks thrive in Nacogdoches, Texas, a city of 35,000, and UCLA exists in Los Angles, the West Coast’s metropolis.
"The brand and who UCLA is about, it’s obviously a very special brand," Alford said.
Yet, the Lumberjacks are still alive.
They don’t have the resources that the other programs in this pod have utilized to build their programs, but they’ve advanced in the NCAA tournament while power players like Duke and Syracuse have already been sent home.
Buildings and budgets don’t tell the full story about the hierarchy within college basketball.
"I can do everything at Stephen F. Austin that I need to do to be successful," Underwood said. "And whether I get on a commercial airline or whether I get on a [Learjet], I don’t need to do that. We’re fine going to an Outback [Steakhouse]."
If the Lumberjacks win Sunday, they’ll need a police escort to get there.