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On Basketball

Not as Good, and Yet, Better Than Ever

By John Feinstein
Tuesday, March 29, 2005; Page D06

Let's not even waste our time today with a debate over where last weekend ranked in the pantheon of college basketball. One statistic is extremely telling: In the previous 30 years of region finals (that would take in 120 games), there had been eight overtime games. In 48 hours last weekend, there were three.

But the theater that was produced goes beyond anything that numbers can explain. A 20-point comeback by a school that hadn't reached the Final Four in 19 years was only the third-best story. What would have been a historic, controversial shot, ended up a footnote because the team it victimized refused to throw in the towel. One of the game's great coaches walked away from what would have been one of his great triumphs with a shocked look that may not disappear for months -- if not longer.

Even with all that, even with the sense of exhaustion everyone feels with still one weekend to go in the season, to simply throw superlatives at the weekend is to miss a much larger point: This wasn't a fluke. Oh, sure, the confluence of a No. 7 seed such as West Virginia making 18 of 27 three-point shots and still losing to Louisville in overtime; the top seed in the tournament coming back from the dead with a 20-5 run in the last four minutes of regulation; and Patrick Sparks's where-was-his-toe three-pointer that led to a double-overtime loss for his team may never be repeated.

But the closeness of the games, the fact that even a 36-1 team isn't dominant and probably isn't even the favorite going into St. Louis, is part of a pattern. For the sake of 2005, let's call it "Bucknell-Vermont syndrome" because those two schools started all this 11 days ago, and in a very real sense, their upsets of Kansas and Syracuse, respectively, symbolize what college basketball has become.

Everyone agrees that the quality of play today at all levels of the game isn't close to what it used to be, but that has had just the opposite effect on the quality of competition.

Three things have radically changed basketball in the last 20 years: the desire of almost every star player to get to the NBA tomorrow; the three-point shot, which has completely blown up fundamental offensive basketball; and the overwhelming media glut around all sports, basketball obviously included.

The biggest stars are almost uncoachable these days. Virtually from the moment they dribble a ball with one hand, they are hunted and pursued and kowtowed to by parents, coaches, street agents, hangers-on, sycophants and the media. They don't want to hear about playing defense or learning fundamentals. The person who tries to actually coach one of these anointed ones usually becomes an ex-coach quickly.

"The toughest thing about being a coach these days is going from recruiting mode to coaching mode," Maryland Coach Gary Williams likes to say. "You spend two years telling a kid how great he is, how he's all this and all that. Then, on the first day of practice, you have to tell him he can't play defense, he needs to learn to give the ball up and he doesn't play hard enough. It doesn't usually go over very well."

The three-point shot was first made a part of the college tournament in 1987. The late Jim Valvano summed up the 19-foot-9-inch distance by saying then, "I don't want to say the line is too close, but my mom made 9 of 10 the other day."

The rule-makers have stubbornly refused to move the line back even to the international distance, and nowadays everyone in the world will take -- and many can make -- three-pointers. Arizona's Salim Stoudamire made better than 50 percent of his three-point attempts this season, which is the equivalent of shooting 75 percent from inside the arc. Any good three-point shooter makes more than 40 percent; even mediocre ones shoot better than 30 percent. Given those numbers, why in the world would anyone ever shoot from inside the arc?

Finally, there's the media glut. Like the first two factors, this isn't going away. The launching of two cable networks devoted solely to college sports is just another step. Today's players don't learn the game as well as yesterday's did. They look for a highlight rather than the best play. In 1984, Michael Jordan ended a game in Cole Field House with an emphatic behind-the-head slam dunk that left everyone in the building oohing and aahing.

"I gave it a 9.9," North Carolina assistant Eddie Fogler said, walking off the court. When that line appeared in the newspaper the next morning, Fogler's boss, Dean Smith, chided him for encouraging that sort of showboating. Smith's comment was a little less colorful: "We just want the two points," he said.

Imagine that dunk happening today. It would be replayed 10,000 times, and no coach would dare scold anyone, much less a superstar, for showboating. Beyond that, there's no way Jordan would still have been in school. After being the national player of the year as a sophomore, he would have turned pro. In fact, these days, anyone who hits the winning shot in the championship game as a freshman -- as Jordan did -- is a good bet to leave school.

In 1999, Duke arrived at the Final Four with the same record Illinois currently has: 36-1. Everyone anointed those Blue Devils as one of the great teams in history. Mike Krzyzewski laughed at the notion.

"Are you kidding?" he said. "My 1986 [NCAA runner-up] team would kill this team. That team had four seniors and a junior starting. This one starts one senior and four of our top six are freshmen and sophomores. Now, if they all stayed, maybe they'd become great. But they aren't going to."

Now, everyone understands that 36-1 simply means you are very good, not all-time fabulous. All of which brings us back to Vermont and Bucknell and last weekend. It is now a given that well-coached mid-majors with tough, veteran players can pull upsets. But it is also a fact that the difference between a No. 1 seed and a No. 7 seed has shrunk to almost nothing. While the quality of play at the college level isn't as good as 20 years ago, the quality of competition is much better.

A lot of teams are good to very good. Very few -- if any -- are great. Among those who reach the tournament, almost none are overmatched.

That's why almost any game in any round can produce an upset. The basketball isn't as pretty or nearly as sound, but it is more fun to watch now than ever, because the college game is as balanced as it has ever been.

Busted brackets are beautiful things. In a brand new way, so is college basketball.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company