With only two teams left in the NCAA tournament, and a whole bunch o’ craziness behind us, I’m not really into it. I acknowledge, at the outset, that part of this might just be sore-loser syndrome; Syracuse — my pick to win the whole thing — got bounced in the second round (and the pain was magnified by the fact that my budget for the next three months assumed that I would win my tournament pool — which, I have to admit, is nobody’s fault but my own).
Still, though, simply as a fan of the game, I’m not feeling this tournament. I mean, I’m all for a good upset now and then to keep things exciting, but I think there’s a thin line between a good amount of upsets and complete chaos, and I think we’re now on the wrong side of that line. Whether this is a one-time fluke, or a manifestation of a larger problem, is yet to be seen.
Unfortunately, there are some signs indicating that the college game is heading for trouble. To get into a discussion about the state of the game, it probably makes sense to start at the foundation, and all big-time college sports are built on a shaky foundation. The problem is that, in theory, the athletic teams are comprised of student-athletes, but, in reality, especially in men’s basketball, today’s athletes don’t seem so worried about being students. I’m not one of those dudes who romanticizes previous eras; seasons played before the game was integrated are, in my opinion, illegitimate. And I can find things to criticize about the game during each of the decades since.
That said, the game is not as good now as I remember it being in the past. In my mind, the “golden era” of college hoops was the late ’70’s – mid ’80’s, when Magic, Larry, Isiah, Michael, Ewing, Mullin, and Derrick Coleman were doing their thing. Even though a bunch of those guys left school before graduating, the sense was that they were student-athletes. I don’t want to sound naive, and I’ll acknowledge that I have no idea whether Larry Bird, Derrick Coleman, or Chris Mullin actually went to class. But at least they faked having a real connection to their schools. It’s not like they showed up, played a season, and disappeared without even completing their second semesters. Now that’s the norm at some of the big-time programs, like Kentucky. Considering that all big-time college sports are built on a shaky foundation, consistently forcing fans to question the legitimacy of what’s being presented to them as “college basketball” is like playing with fire.
But that’s only part of the problem. The number of guys who are capable of being “one-and-doners” is small enough that it wouldn’t have a broad impact on the game if there weren’t other issues. But there are. The main one, in my opinion, is that the game is so unpredictable that deep storylines don’t develop. As I’ve blogged multiple times, the “experts” don’t have a clue what’s going on. It’s now standard for a team that was hardly ever — if ever — ranked in the Top 25 to make the Final Four. Some people look at this fact and see excitement, I look and see chaos.
See, I like a good storyline or two. I like teams to emerge as powerhouses during the course of a season, and then clash in the tournament. I like teams that get better as the season goes on, peaking around the time the tournament begins. But when the teams who limp into the tournament wind up bullying around the teams that bullied their opponents around all season, it suggests that the season is close to meaningless.
Sure, there will always be good storylines, given the nature of the game. When two traditional powerhouses play, it’s a story, even if they’re having sub-par seasons. When a powerhouse plays an upstart, it’s the ol’ David v. Goliath storyline. And when two upstarts meet in an important game, it also makes for compelling theater.
The problem is that those storylines exist by default; if that’s all the game has to offer, then it is in a damaged state. In order to really grasp people, the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight need to include multiple teams with a few pro prospects on each, multiple traditional powerhouses, and multiple teams that have gotten fans’ attention over the course of the season. If the teams people got familiar with while watching for months are not the teams still playing in the Elite Eight and Final Four, it fosters a sense of confusion that borders on complete chaos.
There’s plenty more venting to do, but I’ll stop. For now, I’m going to watch UCONN play Butler, and let the basketball fan inside of me enjoy a hard-fought game. But, come next November, when the polls come out, and ESPN starts hyping the “big-time” teams it wants me to watch, I’ll be watching the NBA. And when CBS starts broadcasting The Road To The Final Four, I’ll be in my car on The Road To Something Else To Do. At the rate things are going, I see little reason to pay attention to the regular season.
Funny how Tweener links to an old, on-point article about picking NCAA tourney upsets when he mentions Fredette (who reminds me of Deron Williams at Illinois) but fails to recognize his previous postings praising Izzo when reporting on Michigan State’s swoon. Izzo’s/MSU’s struggles this year recall last year’s disappointing UNC team and prove, once again, that even the best programs and coaches have a down year every now and then. The Tar Heels, by the way, are quietly playing their best basketball of the year heading into Cameron on Wednesday. Duke should win on Wednesday but expect the game to be a classic Duke-Carolina game unlike the last game between the rivals in Cameron.
Regarding making sense of the Big East, that conference is a reflection of all of college basketball this season. Apart from the top 5 teams (as currently accurately ranked), the next 30 or so are just about interchangeable.
My top-four conference rankings at this point: 1. Big East (by wide margin), 2. Big 12, 3. ACC (underrated) and 4. Big 10 (slipping each day). Not too much farther down the list would be the Ivy League, which is boasting its strongest teams at the top in a long, long time.
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TigerHeel! Always good to have you. A few responses:
1. I wasn’t linking to an old article to pat myself on the back. I’m well aware that there’s stuff in old articles that makes me look bad (I picked the Cavs to make the playoffs this year!). Good dig, though.
2. Aside from Pitt, the teams “at the top of” the Big East have changed a few times this year.
3. What I’m looking to see is whether the Big East teams get a boost from playing all the tough competition this year, or whether it winds up meaning nothing.
4. ACC underrated? Who’s dangerous other than Carolina and Duke?
FSU was looking like a good sleeper tourney team because they are so good defensively. But yesterday the Seminoles lost their best player (Chris Singleton) for the year because of a broken foot. BC, Clemson and Maryland are all solid and would be in the middle of most conferences other than the Big East, which is just stacked.