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Past March Madness Darlings Who Would Have Struck NIL Gold

With March Madness underway, Boardroom takes a look at a few former NCAA Tournament darlings who would have likely scored big name, image and likeness deals.

The NFL leaves sports fans starved for big-scale spectacle once the Super Bowl is over in February, and men’s and women’s college basketball happily take the torch with the NCAA Tournament.

Brackets are full of predictions that will be busted by the end of the First Round because March Madness has its name for a reason — any team, from the 1 seeds to the double-digit seeds — can put together a run. And with those memorable March moments come the stars who made it possible. From Harold “The Show” Arceneaux to Maya Moore to Stephen Curry, some players are just made for the big stage.

But this year’s editions of March Madness are a little different. The NCAA changed its name, image, and likeness (NIL) rules last summer, allowing student-athletes to profit off their personal brands. The NCAA Tournament is, far and away, the biggest stage basketball players have had since then to really take advantage.

The question has to be asked: Which March Madness darlings of yesteryear would have benefitted the most from the NIL era? There are seemingly infinite answers, but here are a few that come to mind:

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Steph Curry, G, Davidson

  • Year: 2008
  • Tournament Result: Elite Eight loss to Kansas
  • Remembered for: Attracting NBA players to the games

Long before he became the greatest three-point shooter in NBA history, Curry dazzled college basketball fans for three years at Davidson.

Davidson was the only Division I school to offer Curry a scholarship, and when the Wildcats were invited to the Big Dance as a 10-seed in 2008, he made sure to take advantage of the national spotlight. During his collegiate career, Curry faced the infamous “triangle and 2” defense, where two defenders focused solely on Steph and the other three defenders played a zone.

It was Curry’s sophomore campaign when the Wildcats made the NCAA Tournament. Their first opponent was No. 7 Gonzaga — at the time, another “mid-major” program that has grown to be the top seed of the 2022 tourney. Steph scored 40 of the team’s 82 points in their six-point win. Every point mattered, as Davidson trailed by as many as 13 in the second half.

The victory earned Davidson a ticket to the Second Round to face No. 2 Georgetown. Again, the Wildcats found themselves down by double digits. And 36 momentum-building points from Curry later, the Wildcats advanced to the Sweet 16.

NBA stars such as Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook came to watch Chef Curry cook. Davidson defeated Wisconsin, a 3-seed, handily before succumbing to the eventual champion Kansas Jayhawks in the Elite Eight.

Davidson has failed to advance beyond the Second Round in the years since, which only heightens what could have been for Curry in an NIL-friendly NCAA.

Curry’s 2008 Tournament Highlights

Gordon Hayward, G/F, Butler

  • Year: 2010
  • Tournament Result: Title game loss to Duke
  • Remembered for: A missed half-court buzzer-beater

How can a miss propel a player to stardom?

Well, when an upstart mid-major program pulls off back-to-back runs to the national championship and that miss came THIS CLOSE to being the most memorable shot in the history of college sports, it makes a difference.

The Butler Bulldogs established themselves as one of the higher-tiered programs of the 2010s before then-head coach Brad Stevens left for the Boston Celtics. Hayward was Butler’s star, and future NBA All-Stars rarely play their college ball at Hinkle Fieldhouse.

Grdon Hayward almost had March Madness magic in the 2010 Title game against Duke

In 2010, Butler faced the mighty Duke Blue Devils and battled for all 40 minutes. After a couple free throws put Duke up two in the final seconds, Butler had one desperate shot attempt left. Hayward hurried to half-court to get momentum for a one-legged heave. The ball was in the air for what felt like an eternity and came so close to banking in off the glass and in. Instead, Duke won 61-59.

Hayward was taken No. 9 overall by the Utah Jazz in that June’s NBA draft, but his collegiate star power — and appeal to potential partners — would have been immense. You rarely see projected lottery picks return to school, but the prospect of being The Guy at Butler, in a basketball-crazed state, with local brands clamoring to get him on board, would have been enticing.

Arike Ogunbowale, G, Notre Dame

  • Year: 2018
  • Tournament Result: Won national championship
  • Remembered for: Back-to-back game-winning shots

“Mamba Mentality.”

Those were the words an exasperated Ogunbowale exclaimed after making a second consecutive game-winning shot in the 2018 Final Four.

For most programs, making the Final Four is enough of a feat. But Ogunbowale, now with the WNBA’s Dallas Wings, didn’t stop there. The then-junior drained consecutive Final Four game-winners to earn the Fighting Irish their second-ever title in women’s basketball.

It was a story made for the silver screen.

After, the late Kobe Bryant — Ogunbowale’s basketball mentor and idol —surprised her on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Companies and brands would have definitely turned those shots into endorsements of some kind had NIL been around.

Kobe Bryant surprises Arike Ogunbowale on The Ellen Show to congratulate her on her NCAA Title

Eric Maynor, G, Virginia Commonwealth

  • Year: 2007
  • Tournament Result: Second Round loss to Pitt
  • Remembered for:Beating Duke on a buzzer-beater

Duke has long been the premier men’s college basketball program. This is evident by the large percentage of fans who enjoy when Duke loses, especially in March, and especially to a Cinderella like VCU.

The Rams’ 2007 victory over the Blue Devils in the First Round stands out, along with the team’s run to the national semifinal in 2011. As an 11 seed, VCU upset No. 6 Duke 79-77, and that was only because sophomore guard Eric Maynor drained a jumper from the free throw line with 1.8 seconds left to secure it.

VCU exited the tournament at the hands of No. 3 Pitt — though it took two overtimes — in the following round, but Maynor went on to lead the Rams in scoring and the CAA in assists his next two years. He was named CAA Player of the Year both seasons, too. In 2009, Maynor was selected in the first round (No. 20 overall) of the NBA Draft by the Oklahoma City Thunder. He currently serves as an assistant coach with the team’s G League affiliate.

Breanna Stewart, G, UConn

  • Year(s): 2013-16
  • Tournament Result: 4-time National Champion
  • Signature: Almost never losing

Stewart is already one of the most decorated basketball players ever. At 27, she is already a WNBA champion and Olympic gold medalist multiple times over. But that outstanding streak of accomplishment extends back through her college career. While at UConn, Stewart’s teams went an unfathomable 151-5, including national championships in four straight years. It’s difficult to pick just one signature moment or tournament run, especially as Stewart was the best player from the moment she arrived in Storrs, Connecticut. The four-time Final Four Most Outstanding Player’s signature is her entire career. Endorsement deals and NIL sponsorships would have been pouring in every year she and the Huskies hoisted the championship trophy.

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