The Sporting News player of the year is Victor Oladipo, prompting the question, Victor Oladipo
? The latest No. 1-ranked team is Gonzaga, and if you know a single Gonzaga player, you are one ahead of everyone else. Extra credit if you can name Gonzaga’s home town. We do not accept Somewhere Out There.
Instead of names we’ve never heard and places we can’t find on the map, men’s college basketball once gave us familiar, comforting stories. Duke and North Carolina, Kentucky and Indiana, Georgetown and Syracuse brought us seasons that came with a novel’s richness.
We watched Larry Bird when he took on Magic Johnson. Michael Jordan beat Georgetown with the game’s last basket. Patrick Ewing tilted his head to look up at Ralph Sampson, and John Thompson stared down at Jim Boeheim. The Kentucky-Louisville “Dream Game” divided households. Jerry Tarkanian — Tark the Shark! — took Las Vegas to Arkansas, where Nolan Richardson ran his beautifully terrifying full-court press called “40 Minutes of Hell.” We saw players so often that we knew when they last trimmed their flat-tops. (Looking at you, Chris Mullin.)
Once, we lived for March Madness. It was the final, thrilling chapter of a winter’s tale filled with heroes, fools and other dreamers. We were pumped. What would happen next? But this season, not so much. This has been a slog through a forgettable four months. For some of us, this is March Sadness.
Perhaps unwittingly, Sports Illustrated reminded us two weeks ago that college basketball isn’t what it used to be. The magazine picked the 10 greatest players in NCAA tournament history, only one of whom had played in a Final Four in the past 33 years.
SI named Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton at UCLA, Bill Bradley at Princeton, Jerry West at West Virginia, Bill Russell at San Francisco, Wilt Chamberlain at Kansas, Oscar Robertson at Cincinnati, Bird at Indiana State and Magic at Michigan State. The youngster in the group is Duke’s Christian Laettner. His last college game was in 1992.
It’s not that we’ve run out of great players. We’ve run out of epic stories. Laettner played in 148 college games and four Final Fours. That doesn’t happen now. The great pros Kevin Garnett and LeBron James skipped college. Others gave it one season: Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, John Wall and Anthony Davis. Kids, you were great, but we never saw you on the quad.
Mark Bradley, for 29 years a columnist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, grew up in Kentucky, where basketball is all but a state religion. The University of Kentucky’s legendary coach, Adolph Rupp, won four national championships and established a program so powerful that it has won four more with four more coaches.
Recently, Bradley decided what he thought about the game this year: “Put bluntly, college basketball stinks. . . . After nearly two decades of descent the sport has hit bottom.”