In college basketball, teams can be too good for their own good. It is dangerous to be judged one of the 16 best in the country the day of the NCAA chooses who will play for the national championship, to be given what is meant to be an honor but more and more seems a curse. The latest lament, the sad song of hoops is: "Nobody wants a bye."
For the second straight season, several teams with byes in the first round of the NCAA playoffs have gone bye-bye in the second. Some have been two-time losers to the big, bad bye, among them arguably the finest regular-season teams in the land over that period, De Paul and Oregon State.
"I will repeat what I told you last year," Oregon State Coach Ralph Miller said when Kansas State had beaten his team in the West regional Saturday. "I think all the teams should start playing at the same time. the bye seems more of a handicap than anything else. I don't know why, but it definitely seems that way."
It surely does. A year ago six of the 16 teams with byes -- Notre Dame, North Carolina, St. John's, De Paul, Brigham Young and Oregon State -- lost in the second round. Saturday, half the teams with byes -- De Paul, Oregon State, Louisville and UCLA -- lost. Today, four more giants -- Kentucky, Arizona State, Wake Forest and Iowa -- were slain. In all, eight of the top 13 teams were beaten in the round of 32.
And Gene Bartow has gone from being a coaching Goliath to a coaching David. At Alabama-Birmingham, Bartow beat Kentucky today. He may go further in the NCAA tournament this year than he did with better players at UCLA.
This weekend's madness is enough for the NCAA is seriously reconsider its playoff structure, to in fact add even more teams next year -- 16 to be exact -- and move steadily toward the ideal format: letting every Division I school into the tournament. All 257.
In theory, a bye should be welcomed. It gives a team some much-needed rest after a season that gets increasingly wearisome, especially with so many postseason conference tournaments. The players have a few extra moments to themselves, perhaps a chance to actually get reacquainted with their professors.
In reality, a bye is counterproductive. Mainly, it does not offer what it is supposed to -- the easiest way to the next round. It even creates an unnatural situation, for at this time of year -- after from 25 to 30 games -- rest is almost a burden for the best teams.
Everybody is used to playing at least twice a week all year, in some sort of Tuesday-Friday or Wednesday-Saturday pattern. Many conferences top this with three-day playoff binges that decide their champions. The best teams, the ones building for the NCAAs, usually want to play as soon as possible rather than risk the lethargy that comes with rest.
The best way to continue that flow is to play an inferior team early in the NCAAs and move on to somebody tougher two days later. Which is what happens to the second-echelon NCAA teams, Nos. 17 to 32, the ones who just missed the byes but clearly merited being in the field.
It is what Al McGuire calls "getting the monkey off your back," becoming acclimated to the pressure of being in the NCAAs without losing the momentum developed late in the regular season.
What the NCAA tournament needs is more monkeys. Little ones.
Next year Walter Byers and the other NCAA thinkers should increase the 48-team field to 64, which means that everyone begins play at the same time. And the 16 teams considered to be the best in the field should play the 16 regarded as the worst.
Dean Smith and North Carolina also have been particularly embarrassed in the NCAAs after getting byes, losing to such as Texas A&M and Penn. There even was a pool by some ornery writers before this season about which obscure school would upset the Heels early in the NCAAs.
Why such a splendid coach suffered so can be explained by a combination of factors in addition to the bye: the important of winning the ACC championship, the increasing equality of teams throughout the country and, perhaps most important, the fact that Smith has not had players as special as James Worthy and Sam Perkins up front in recent memory.
Carolina had no such miseries today against Pitt. Smith has gone to extraordinary lengths with this relatively inexperienced team to make it as pressure resistant as possible. His schedule has been as tough as any in the country.
In addition to an ACC schedule that included four NCAA and two NIT teams, Carolina beat Georgetown in the Great Alaska Shootout. It won that championship over Arkansas, which advanced to the round of 16 Saturday. The Heels also beat Indiana and lost to Kansas, two other teams that made the final 16 teams.
The most overrated conference this season, the last two days have shown, is the Pac-10. The league champion, Oregon State, lost by two points to the runner-up in the Big Eight, Kansas State. UCLA and Arizona State were humiliated, the Sun Devils to the point that the television commentators gave the most valuable player award to Tony Guy with 12 minutes left in the game.
Last season's Cinderella in sneakers, UCLA, was one of the dragons this season, ill tempered and internally festering to the point where Coach Larry Brown is likely to leave for the NBA New Jersey Nets. The primary reason is money.
Pro and college, coaches must endure snipers when high expectations go unrealized. The difference between what the Nets and Bruins pay, estimated to be more than $18,000 per season, will make Brown's fate more bearable.