We join the regularly scheduled college basketball season already in progress. Actually, it's almost over. We're into the dessert course now. That's what March is: the syrupy sweet and gooey stuff. The soup and appetizer portions of the season were completely wiped out by a national obsession with a high school kid, LeBron James. The main course grew cold while we were diverted by the scandals of Jim Harrick, St. Bonaventure, Fresno State and Villanova. So, here we are in the middle of March and it's like the stuff on the court, the actual playing of basketball games, has just begun.
And perhaps, after getting a good look at the product, it's just as well.
This is not your daddy's college basketball. This is not your daddy's ACC tournament, either.
Oh, the stands are packed at the Greensboro Coliseum, at most of the areas hosting big-time post-season tournaments for that matter. The fat-cat alums wearing those awful sweaters still spend their money as usual. The bands play, the cheerleaders cry and their mascara runs. My man Dickie V. is screaming about teams On The Bubble and SOS (strength of schedule, silly), and when the brackets are announced early Sunday evening it'll be like a national holiday. Selection Sunday has more anticipation than Christmas.
And yet, it's all window dressing. Have you taken a good look at college basketball lately? There's not much to it.
Don't get me wrong, I love being here. I love March more than any other month because of the tournament. As I type these words I'm 25 feet from Dickie V. and if he was any more fired up he'd need an asbestos suit. But the product on the floor is indisputably flawed. There's not a single player in the entire country this season who qualifies as great, nor is there a single great team, as we saw Thursday night when Arizona, presumably a No. 1 seed come Sunday, lost to forlorn UCLA in the Pacific-10 tournament. In fact, in a 24-hour span between Thursday night and Friday night, top 20 teams Arizona, Texas, Florida, Marquette, Syracuse, Wisconsin, Oklahoma State, Maryland and Xavier all lost. And all those games were conference quarterfinals and semifinals. In the absence of greatness, it's likely the next three weekends of tournament play will look a lot like this one.
Here in Greensboro, the conference that produced the Billy Cunningham, David Thompson, James Worthy, Michael Jordan, Len Bias, Grant Hill and Tim Duncan, there is no single player in this tournament worth building your TV night around.
Mike Gminski, who before landing in the broadcast booth and playing 14 NBA seasons, played his college basketball at Duke. He helped his team reach the Final Four (1978). He loves college basketball more than 99 percent of the folks who claim to love it. But as a man paid to look critically at the game, Gminski sees reality. "It's still compelling," he said. "The atmosphere is there. You still get goose bumps before and during the big games, the big events like this one. But . . . "
But . . . the players aren't as good as they were 10, 15, 20 years ago, even though they are better athletes. Players leave college so early, rosters turn over so quickly coaches don't get to teach. That leads to sloppy, inadequate play and lowered expectations. One NBA personnel man told me that scouting the colleges now is akin to grading on the curve. Even the NBA, which has its own performance issues, has had to lower its expectations of what's coming to them from the college ranks.
Gminski noted, "Did you look at first-team all-ACC this year? There's not one player on it who's taller than 6 feet 6." Sure enough, Wake Forest's Josh Howard, North Carolina State's Julius Hodge, Maryland's Steve Blake, Duke's Dahntay Jones and Clemson's Ed Scott are all 6-6 or shorter. They're all guards. "The point," Gminski said, "is that the players are smaller. And that means the game is more perimeter-oriented. No player taller than 6-6? That's impossible. Every team used to have at least one seven-footer. Now, there's one in the league who really plays (Georgia Tech's Luke Schenscher, and two if you count Florida State's Trevor Harvey) and he only averages about 15 minutes a game."
Indeed, there were more quality 7-footers sitting at press row tonight than there were on the court in the four quarterfinal games Friday. Among them was Brad Daugherty, the former Tar Heel and Cleveland Cavaliers center who now works as an analyst for ESPN. "The big kids who do play almost all face the basket," Daugherty said. "The players now are bigger, faster, stronger, sometimes smarter, but the game isn't better. Guys can't make free throws, can't hit a 15-foot jumper, can't make the most basic passes, can't play help defense. It bothers me, yes. My son, who is 11, is a huge Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant fan. But his fundamentals are awful! I wonder sometimes, 'Am I 37 going on 80 and just way too old-fashioned, or is my perception real, that the game is deteriorating?' "
Gminski, Daugherty, the NBA scouts who watch college basketball every single night of their lives all agree that the college game is deteriorating. Once the goose bumps subside, it's obvious to less expert eyes as well. And not just because big guys don't know how to play in the post and therefore colleges are often playing only half the game, but also because college coaches don't -- make that can't -- teach kids how to play anymore. Gminski sees it having trickled down from the pro ranks, where rookies are expected -- sometimes unreasonably so -- to contribute immediately. "Kids are under pressure to perform," he said, "but they haven't learned the game. . . . The whole thing has been turned on its head."
Said Daugherty: "The teaching element has become virtually non-existent. The [big conference] teams have so much turnover every year from guys leaving early. The coach is spending so much of his time implementing, there's no time left for teaching."
Reducing the talent pool even further is the fact that top European youngsters (think Detlef Schrempf and Drazen Petrovic) who were starting to attend college in the U.S. for development and exposure now don't. They don't need to. Like Yugoslavia's 7-foot Darko Milicic, who may be the best prospect in the world, they can stay home and play in their own pro leagues, yet know that NBA scouts will come to Europe to see them.
Scouting Europe, Asia and the high schools is as important now, maybe more so according to some scouts, than following all but the most accomplished college players.
Here's what they're talking about: Fifteen years ago, we'd be watching a college tournament that would likely include Jay Williams, Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy (all of Duke), Caron Butler, Joe Forte, Chris Wilcox, Amare Stoudamire, Tyson Chandler, Eddy Curry, Kwame Brown, Richard Jefferson and Gilbert Arenas. How good would the Blue Devils be with those three seniors and what they have now? What about Arizona and Maryland? And how good would their backups, after serving such apprenticeships, be next season? The lure of the NBA's millions will simply not allow colleges (nor the pros) that luxury.
As is, arenas will be full. Guards will hoist more three-pointers. Games will be decided dramatically. And the people who want to believe college basketball is as good as ever will buy the excitement, but perhaps not look critically at the level of skill or the level of play. The college game, even with all the scandal it has produced, will create such a buzz and such energy fans will see what they want. Goosebumps will rise, cheerleaders will cry, and the pep band, as always, will play on.