Then came a series of administrative decisions that had on-court implications. First, in 2005, the National Basketball Association decided that a player must be 19 years old to enter the league. The rule transformed universities into one-year prep schools for the NBA. The players who became known as “one and dones” made their college teams better, but only in the short term. Their departures for the pros left spaces filled by lesser players.
Kentucky is a dramatic example. UK won the 2012 national championship with Anthony Davis and two other one-and-dones. This year, with a new crop of would-be one-and-dones, coach John Calipari has complained, without irony, that his team’s lack of experience has made its game inconsistent. This time, Kentucky might not make it into the tournament.
In 2009 came the confusion called “conference realignment.” The Big Ten started it by adding schools to cash in on television’s insatiable need for football programming. Some universities had played for most of a century in leagues dictated by geography and shared values. They abandoned those alliances for bloated groupings designed to produce football revenue in multiples of anything basketball can do.
A quick test: How many schools are in the Big Ten? (Soon to be 14.) Which Midwest river-city university will be a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference? (Louisville.) What school considered joining the Big East? (Boise State. That’s Boise, as in Idaho, as in five feet east of the Pacific Ocean.)
Then there is football. From August to February, America is hooked on the game’s spectacle and brutality. Basketball’s regular season hasn’t just fallen off the casual fan’s radar; it has been pushed off. In six months, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel rose from anonymity to rock-star celebrity. As for the National Football League, had the Roman Empire been as powerful as today’s NFL, we’d all be speaking Latin.
How big is football? “Here in Indy, you’d think the ‘Hoosiers’ myth would be the strongest,” hoops zealot Van Curtis told me. Curtis attends a hundred college hoops games each winter and spends his idle hours working as a lawyer in an Indianapolis exurb. “But with the Colts in this town, especially after winning the Super Bowl, football’s all you hear, 24-7. It’s painful. I’m down to my last OxyContin with a chaser of Jack Daniel’s.”
Some veteran basketball observers reject the notion of March Sadness. The Washington Post’s John Feinstein told me: “If you think college basketball is only about glamour teams, then this kind of season isn’t for you. If you really love the game, not just the names, this season’s been fabulous. Gonzaga number one? I’ll take that every day over a bunch of pros-in-training dominating at Kentucky or any of the other factories.”