Instead of a coronation, dismal NCAA title game was a culmination of bad habits


The Butler bench reacts as Connecticut pulls away in the final moments of the NCAA title game. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
John Feinstein
Columnist April 5, 2011

This was the message of Monday night’s NCAA national championship game: You reap what you sow.

John Feinstein is a sports columnist for The Washington Post and also provides commentary for the Golf Channel and National Public Radio. View Archive

This is where basketball has come after years of the powers-that-be fiddling while the sport has burned.

It is not news that the level of play — from youth basketball to the NBA — has been dropping like a stone for a good long while now, but Connecticut’s unwatchable 53-41 victory over Butler put that fact into focus on the game’s biggest stage.

There’s no doubt these were the two teams that deserved to play for the championship. Connecticut had won 10 consecutive games to get to the title game; Butler had won 14 in a row. Each had survived scares by making big plays late, and both had that little bit of luck that most national champions need.

And then they both no-showed on Monday night, except that Butler out-no-showed U-Conn. Were the Huskies the best team? Let’s put it this way: They were less bad than everyone else in the (too many) 68-team field.

Please — please — let’s not go down the “that was great defense” road. Let’s agree that the defenses were good while acknowledging that the offenses were god-awful. Butler couldn’t make a layup or an open jump shot. Matt Howard, who is as admirable a player as has ever played in the tournament, had a night that will keep him awake for years to come.

Steve Kerr, who brought some sensibility to the see-no-evil CBS telecast, can counsel Howard on what it is going to be like. Kerr had a great senior year at Arizona and played a key role in getting the Wildcats to the 1988 Final Four. But in the semifinals against Oklahoma he made only 2 of 13 shots, just a shade better than Howard’s 1-of-13 nightmare. He went on to play on five NBA championship teams.

“The only game I played in that I ever think about is the Oklahoma game,” Kerr said recently. “I can still see the shots I missed that night.”

Howard and his teammates will see their remarkable string of misses in their waking dreams for years. There is no getting around the fact that 12-of-64 shooting is horrific; it was the first time in history a team shot worse than 20 percent from the field in a championship game. Connecticut was better, but 19 of 55 is nothing to write home about — unless it is good enough to win a national championship, in which case everyone at home will be delighted to hear from you.

The larger issue isn’t that one ultimate game was a dud. This was the culmination of years of neglect by everyone responsible for running the game.

The NBA copped out a few years back with the one-and-done rule. It isn’t just that top players don’t ever go to class — lots of players don’t go to class, especially in March — it’s that their focus is on where they think they might go in that spring’s draft, not on trying to get better.

Many college coaches call this the “AAUization” of the game. Stars are coddled from the very beginning; no one tells them they have to play defense, no one teaches them fundamentals and no one gets on them if they don’t play hard. Why? Because if a star gets yelled at by one coach, he goes and finds a new coach. That’s why it is now common for players to go to three or four high schools and play on a different AAU team every summer. Then they come to college knowing they hold all the cards with their coach: They only have to deal with him for one year, so why put up with him if he makes unreasonable demands such as “Would you please try on defense?”

When the NBA and the players’ union get through with all their saber-rattling the next few months, they need to create a sensible rule for underclassmen. The one in place for baseball would be close to ideal: If you are a high school superstar and think you are the next Kevin Garnett or Kobe Bryant or LeBron James, have at it.

But once you enroll in college, you can’t go back into the draft for three years. It’s simple, it will stand up in court if collectively bargained and it is good for players, for college basketball and for the NBA.

There’s more: The three-point line is still way too close, even after it was moved back slightly a few years ago. The NCAA needs to move it back to the NBA distance at all levels and force teams to work harder to get good shots. The fact that Butler couldn’t make a two-point shot on Monday night is another example of how dependent on the three teams have become.

The NCAA is culpable in a lot of this.

For one thing, the brilliant idea of playing only in the most massive domes it can find — and placing the court in the middle of the football field so that shooters have absolutely no background — is never going to be conducive to good basketball. In the nine games played since the new system began in Detroit in 2009, the cumulative shooting percentage of the teams is 38.6 percent. In the nine Final Four games that preceded the switch, teams shot 43.2 percent.

Monday night wasn’t an anomaly, it was a culmination.

There is also the continuing issue of what everyone who cares about college athletics has known to be true for years: cheating pays. The team that just won the national championship is on probation for major rules violations.

The Hall of Fame coach who just joined John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, Mike Krzyzewski and Bob Knight as the only coaches to win at least three national titles will be suspended for his team’s first three conference games next winter because of a “lack of compliance” with NCAA rules.

In English, a lack of compliance means you cheated. (Of course, you wouldn’t know that if you were watching CBS last night).

Calhoun is a great coach and a good man but the fact is he screwed up and the punishment didn’t fit the crime. It never does in NCAA-world. Or CBS-world, where we were continually told on Saturday that John Calipari had taken three teams to the Final Four with no mention of the fact that the first two no longer exist in the record book — except a brief mention saying that Calipari was never found culpable. Pure as the driven snow, no doubt.

In the end, the NCAA cares about none of this. Its new president is a pompous blowhard who brags about “student-athletes,” knowing that almost none of the kids playing in Houston has seen a classroom in the last month.

He talks about “transparency” while running a super-secret society and won’t even answer a simple question such as “How much are you paid?” while the NCAA rolls in the TV billions for which it has sold its soul.

What saves the tournament are the games, because even though they aren’t played nearly as well as in the past, they are still extraordinarily competitive and full of compelling story lines. Butler and VCU made this tournament a joy for most of three weeks.

But the championship game ended it with a thud. Sadly, that is exactly what those running the sport deserved.

For more by the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.

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