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NCAA's underdogs embody the leaner American workplace

They're not supposed to have done this much.

The men's basketball teams from Cornell University, Butler University, the University of Northern Iowa and St. Mary's College in California are the surprising small-school headliners of one of the most unpredictable NCAA tournaments ever. The second weekend of games starts tonight. There are only 16 teams left with a shot at the national title, and these four are among them.

America's teams, they're often called, or Cinderellas wearing glass slippers, or overachieving underdogs within so much March Madness.

But all those sports entertainment cliches miss the more interesting, more instructive point: These teams are doing more with less.

That feels especially important right now.

Here in March 2010, as the country pulls out of the Great Recession and begins what is going to be a long, slow slog of an economic recovery, individual net worth is down, median household income is down, home values are down. Food stamps are up. Schools are closing, libraries are closing, and the image of the moment could be cleared-out cubicles inside workplaces wracked by layoffs.

Last year, though, as the national unemployment rate surged, so did employee productivity. It didn't dip. It jumped.

More with less.

"What's going on in business today, the key word is 'lean,' " said Bob Forsythe, the dean of the business school at the University of South Florida. "Companies are working smarter and harder."

In the first round of the NCAAs, Murray State beat Vanderbilt, Ohio University beat Georgetown, and Old Dominion beat Notre Dame. In the second round, St. Mary's beat Villanova, Cornell beat Wisconsin, and Northern Iowa beat the nation's top-rated team from the University of Kansas. Unexpected results, every one of them.

Last year, 14 of the top 16 seeds made it this far. Two years ago, the four teams in the Final Four were the four top seeds. This year's been different.

"Everyone wants to make it seem like it's a big gap," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said Sunday when he was asked about the difference between the teams from the bigger schools and their opponents from the smaller schools.

"It's not a big gap," Boeheim said.

But he's wrong. The gap isn't big. The gap is enormous.

Statistics from the Department of Education say so.

Northern Iowa's annual men's basketball budget is $1.5 million. Kansas: $9.4 million.

St. Mary's annual men's basketball budget is $1.6 million. Villanova: $5 million.

And Cornell? Cornell's annual men's basketball budget is $822,000. Wisconsin: $6 million. The difference between a chartered bus and a chartered jet.

Bigger, in this tournament, hasn't always been better.

"During expansion, a certain largesse sets in," University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith said Wednesday from Orlando. "In a recession, businesses are forced to reassess processes to try to find more efficient ways to do business."

Added Forsythe, the USF dean: "When you're big and successful, it's almost inevitable that waste comes into the process.

"You get sloppy," he said.

The basketball teams from the bigger schools have on their rosters most of the future NBA players. Many of the teams with the very best talent, though, have turned into way stations for players who pause on campus for just one year before going to the pros. That means those teams almost always have the superior talent but often lack the experience or the teamwork that comes only from time spent together.

Northern Iowa has had the same starting five for the last two years. Same thing with Butler. Cornell has eight seniors, and 13 of the team's players live in the same off-campus house in Ithaca, N.Y. The Big Red became the first Ivy League team since 1998 to win an NCAA tournament game. Then it won another.

Cornell plays Kentucky on Thursday night. Cornell's best players have been on campus for the last four years. Kentucky's best players were in high school last year and will almost certainly be in the NBA next year.

Here's what Paula Pautauros, the chief operating officer of National Title Network in St. Petersburg, said Wednesday on the phone: "I really think it has to do with the caliber of the people working for us."

Her company, with only 73 employees, has not just survived but thrived at a time when many companies like hers, and bigger than hers, have done neither.

"We are looking for people who are wanting to make this a career and not a pit stop," she said. "We are investing in them. We want them to invest in us."

And here's what Cornell coach Steve Donahue said last week after his team beat Wisconsin: "You're looking at kids that have played 120 games together."

The message of Cornell, and the message of the rest of this tournament's "America's teams," is this: long view over quick fix, well-drilled over well-heeled, and sometimes smarter beats bigger.

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

NCAA's underdogs embody the leaner American workplace 03/24/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 24, 2010 9:30pm]
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