Dave Kindred, a longtime sports columnist, is a member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame and a recipient of the Red Smith Award for lifetime achievement in sports journalism.
Finally, March Madness is here. Get the office pools ready. Channel your inner bracketologist. We’re about to have three weeks of serious basketball fun.
And hooray for that, because the college game this season has been a long, fitful snooze.
The Sporting News player of the year is Victor Oladipo, prompting the question, Victor Oladipo ? The latest No. 1-ranked team is Gonzaga, and if you know a single Gonzaga player, you are one ahead of everyone else. Extra credit if you can name Gonzaga’s home town. We do not accept Somewhere Out There.
Instead of names we’ve never heard and places we can’t find on the map, men’s college basketball once gave us familiar, comforting stories. Duke and North Carolina, Kentucky and Indiana, Georgetown and Syracuse brought us seasons that came with a novel’s richness.
We watched Larry Bird when he took on Magic Johnson. Michael Jordan beat Georgetown with the game’s last basket. Patrick Ewing tilted his head to look up at Ralph Sampson, and John Thompson stared down at Jim Boeheim. The Kentucky-Louisville “Dream Game” divided households. Jerry Tarkanian — Tark the Shark! — took Las Vegas to Arkansas, where Nolan Richardson ran his beautifully terrifying full-court press called “40 Minutes of Hell.” We saw players so often that we knew when they last trimmed their flat-tops. (Looking at you, Chris Mullin.)
Once, we lived for March Madness. It was the final, thrilling chapter of a winter’s tale filled with heroes, fools and other dreamers. We were pumped. What would happen next? But this season, not so much. This has been a slog through a forgettable four months. For some of us, this is March Sadness.
Perhaps unwittingly, Sports Illustrated reminded us two weeks ago that college basketball isn’t what it used to be. The magazine picked the 10 greatest players in NCAA tournament history, only one of whom had played in a Final Four in the past 33 years.
SI named Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton at UCLA, Bill Bradley at Princeton, Jerry West at West Virginia, Bill Russell at San Francisco, Wilt Chamberlain at Kansas, Oscar Robertson at Cincinnati, Bird at Indiana State and Magic at Michigan State. The youngster in the group is Duke’s Christian Laettner. His last college game was in 1992.
It’s not that we’ve run out of great players. We’ve run out of epic stories. Laettner played in 148 college games and four Final Fours. That doesn’t happen now. The great pros Kevin Garnett and LeBron James skipped college. Others gave it one season: Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, John Wall and Anthony Davis. Kids, you were great, but we never saw you on the quad.
Mark Bradley, for 29 years a columnist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, grew up in Kentucky, where basketball is all but a state religion. The University of Kentucky’s legendary coach, Adolph Rupp, won four national championships and established a program so powerful that it has won four more with four more coaches.
Recently, Bradley decided what he thought about the game this year: “Put bluntly, college basketball stinks. . . . After nearly two decades of descent the sport has hit bottom.”
A harsh judgment, but look:
Long before now, basketball lost its way. Curmudgeons blame the ESPN highlight culture for suggesting to players that only the most flamboyant slam dunk is worth doing. The good midrange jump-shooter has become a rarity. In both the college and pro games, teams have taken advantage of the poor shooting by playing hyper-physical defense. A game built on grace and speed now often looks like guys playing football in their underwear.
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.”
David Teel of the Newport News Daily Press: “While championship-game ratings are unlikely ever to approach Bird-Magic levels, the Butler-UConn game of 2011, eyesore that it was, drew the highest number since ’05 Carolina-Illinois.”
What’s certain is that the NCAA tournament is still important — only now it’s important in a different way. It must redeem the failures of the season that preceded it.
It starts Sunday night when the NCAA announces the field of 68 teams and places them in tournament pairings. The new subset of American geniuses — “bracketologists” — will analyze, predict and make wild-hair guesses as to what will happen in the three weeks leading to the national championship game in Atlanta.
My guess is that fewer than 10 teams are good enough to win the six straight games necessary to take the championship. But in this most unpredictable of seasons, maybe 30 or 40 are good enough to reach the Final Four.
Those are our darlings, the “maybe” teams. We may have been ignoring them, but they are now our last best hope at deleting the past four months from our memory banks. There is precedent, after all, for the unexpected.
In ’83 we saw coach Jim Valvano running in circles, arms flailing, looking for someone, anyone, to hug after unsung North Carolina State beat mighty Houston for the national championship. Villanova beat Georgetown in ’85, and no one yet understands how that magic trick was done. In ’06, George Mason beat Connecticut. Only historians of the American Revolution had ever heard of George Mason. Good ol’ George wrote Virginia’s Constitution. Better that he beat UConn.
Our all-time favorite darling, Butler, did it in 2010. The little school from Indianapolis — “Hoosiers” made real — put together a string of implausible victories. It beat Texas-El Paso, Murray State, Syracuse, Kansas State and Michigan State. Then it won its first national championship. It beat Duke on a beautiful, floating, last-second, no-one’s-breathing shot from mid-court.
Yes, it did. It beat Duke. In our dreams, it did. If only the shot had been two inches shorter . . . two inches shorter, is all . . . two inches and the entire city of Indianapolis would have risen into orbit.
It’s what March Madness can do. In this time of March Sadness, it’s what college basketball needs.
Kindred’s most recent Outlook essay was “Lance Armstrong vs. Manti Te’o: When does a sports hero deserve redemption?”
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