This year’s NCAA Tournament shows thrills and dangers of college game
Before the college basketball season began, common wisdom was that there was no dominant team in the industry.
By the end of the regular season, nothing changed that view.
Now that the Final Four is upon us, what has changed? Again, nothing.
An eighth seed vs. an 11 seed.
Nary a one seed or two seed will be playing in Houston.
Its one thing not to have a dominant team.
Its another thing to be overrun with kid wizards and Hobbits.
Butler-VCU is Harry Potter vs. Frodo.
You may have heard of little Butler from a year ago, when they came within a shot of swiping the national title from haughty Duke.
But VCU? Venture Capitalists? Vice Cops? Vicodin Codeine?
What VCU is, is the new Butler, at least as a term to describe the degree of arch in the national eyebrows.
By now, followers of the tourney know the story. VCU, of the less-than-legendary Colonial Athletic Association, received an entry into the 64-team field only as part of a four-team, play-in round cooked up this season by the NCAA to squeeze more games and money out of the frenzy.
Then the Rams beat USC of the Pac-10, Georgetown of the Big East, Purdue of the Big Ten, and Florida State of the ACC, before dispatching Big 12 colossus and No. 1-seeded Kansas Saturday to reach the Final Four this weekend in Houston.
VCU came up from so far down so fast that their biggest problem might be a case of the bends. If the Rams trajectory wasnt spectacular enough, they have a 33-year-old coach whose name sounds like street patois for a hip brainiac Shaka Smart.
Meanwhile, the other national semifinal is pure pedigree: No. 4 Kentucky vs. No. 3 Connecticut. The coaching match-up of the Wildcats John Calipari and the Huskies Jim Calhoun, both dogged by scandal and controversy, also has its kid-lit analogy: Voldemort vs. Sauron.
Even those two dominant programs hit seasonal chuckholes, especially UConn. After a 9-9 season in the Big East, the Huskies had to play five games in five days in the bloated conference post-season tourney.
Yes, they won them all, but five games in five days? If the NBA tried that with its players, the union would not only strike, the United Nations would have to create a no-fly zone over David Stern.
Which brings up the dark side of March Madness the economic madness part.
The extraordinary media attention that goes to obscure schools arising from a tourney appearance is intoxicating, not just to fans but to cash-strapped institutions looking for ways to deny the wolf at the door.
The best example is here in the Northwest hood Gonzaga. The once-obscure Spokane school has parlayed 13 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances into a brand, an archetype. Every school in every mid-major outfit like the West Coast Conference aspires to be the next Gonzaga.
The good Jesuit brothers who run the show are reluctant to admit that hoops is the driver, but enrollment, donations and every economic indicator suggests Gonzaga is more robust now than 13 years ago. Indirect proof is available locally in the fact the Seattle University has returned its basketball program to Division I status, a partial result of the national profile the Zags developed.
Because the tourneys TV ratings and subsequent advertising rates continue to grow, the lust to be part of the action impels schools and coaches to do whatever it takes, including pursuit of un- or under-qualified hoopsters and/or dodging NCAA restrictions.
Eagerness for financial and emotional glory was why Seattle U took a chance a year ago on Charles Garcia, an academic non-qualifier for Lorenzo Romar at the University of Washington. Thats why Romar was in hot pursuit of a Turkish seven-footer who, events subsequently revealed, took pro-ball money in Europe and was ineligible for college here.
And thats why Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl was willing to lie to NCAA investigators, which cost him his job.
The opportunities and pressures to make the tourney field, fairly modest 15 years ago when Seattle was hosting Final Fours, are today extraordinary. It was made more so by the change in NBA draft rules that forced many of the most talented players into a school for a year that they dont really want, yet that colleges desperately need.
At the moment, however, nobody much cares. College hoops is among the guiltiest of sports pleasures, but this is the time of the year when the pleasures verge on ecstasy, especially for anyone who identifies with the underdog, which recent studies say includes 102 percent of Americans.
As is often the case with him, Charles Barkley put it bluntly and well Sunday in his role as CBS studio-show oracle. Talking about the VCU Rams ridiculous run through good teams and many skeptics to the Final Four, he said, I think they can tell everybody to shut the hell up.
Which is, of course, what many of us wish we could say most of the time to our tormentors, be they Voldemort, Sauron or Dick Vitale. Thus the VCU Rams are America’s Team this week.
Just another reason why consumer advocate Ralph Nader wont get anywhere with his idea announced this week of banning college athletic scholarships. Hes right, and almost no one in sports, including college presidents, cares.