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.