BY Art Thiel 07:03PM 03/27/2011

VCU, Butler a delight, and temptation for obscure

This year’s NCAA Tournament shows thrills and dangers of college game

Head coach Shaka Smart and VCU have proven the pundits who did not want the Rams in the tournament. / Ronald Martinez, Getty Images

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.

Except . . . in one national semifinal, it’s Virginia Commonwealth vs. Butler.

Fercripessake!

An eighth seed vs. an 11 seed.

Nary a one seed or two seed will be playing in Houston.

It’s one thing not to have a dominant team.

It’s 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.

Inexplicably, Butler is back to to the Final Four for the second consecutive year under the guidance of head coach Brad Stevens. / Wikimedia Commons

VCU came up from so far down so fast that their biggest problem might be a case of the bends. If the Rams’ trajectory wasn’t 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 tourney’s 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. That’s 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 that’s 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 don’t 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 won’t get anywhere with his idea announced this week of banning college athletic scholarships. He’s right, and almost no one in sports, including college presidents, cares.


YourThoughts

  • jerry

    Not to stray too far from the central theme Art’s piece, but the one thing all 4 of these teams have in common is a high basketball I.Q. Yes, even the one and done dudes from Kentucky have some pretty smart players on their team.
    Now I’m not saying the Huskies are mentally challenged, but can you imagine any of these teams nearly blowing a 10 point lead against Georgia with barely a buck 40 left in the game?

  • rod belcher

    ~~Hey Art ~~ Your piece dated March 27 wss a special winner. I picked out one good line and sent to JMichael Kenyon and a couple of my lady friends who understand basketball. (you should receive a blind copy).

    I await your comments re: the ex-Auburn guys’ revelations. Hell, 60 years ago I used to hear U-Dub players talking about times when “the goodies man” [Torchy Torrance] would come around dishing out greenbacks. Except those goodies were probably 20-buck bills instead of the inflated goodies of Auburn boosters and those of other schools these days.

  • Michael Kaiser

     You know, I tend to agree with Art here, but the thing is, the pitching will probably not be as good in the future  either.  Hard to improve on first. So do you waste it?  But, ya, the Mariners are light years, mentally and otherwise, from being really competitive, so loading up on hitting at this point–even if it could be done–would be like what happens when you give food to a starving person.  If you are not careful they die and, regardless, their system arguably is not ready for it. Kind of interesting, though, that such a parallel can be made about the Mariners. 

  • SeattleNative

    Nice theory, but I think you’re offbase on the offensive analysis, pardon my pun. I agree , our offense is pathetic. However, as the weather warms, so will the hitting. These Mariners have been tragically unlucky. Leagues misadventures were just the tip of the past blunders, including Ichiro’s sunball. At least 3 of our last 6 losses should have been W’s. Those 3 wins would put us closer to. 500 which is probably the best this group could expect. The upside is that our rotation is for real and should be for some time. Their relative ages would suggest many years of productive pitching. Don’t forget, Wedge is a master of pitching and bullpen management. He cut his teeth managing pitchers and in-game strategy. The offense will be fine. Smoak is a budding superstar in the Griffey mold. Figgins won’t be around, preceded by Wilson if the rumors are true. Ackley and Gutierrez will improve the offense if not the defense. Pitching and defense will take us to the World Series. We have that. Offense will win the Series for us. Trader Jack should not and will not sacrifice pitching. Over Wedge’s dead body. I believe help us on the way and that Ackley, Carp and Peguero will make positive contributions this year. Trades will be made and Jack Z will be in the driver’s seat. I hope he doesn’t blow it. We have most of the right ingredients to contend. It’s just getting over that hump, like Wedge said, you win games like today and then you begin to expect to win games like that. Their confidence grows and next thing you know, they’ve won 10 in a row. Could happen, probably not. We can be good, with our starting pitching the skies the limit. Good times are just around the corner.

  • SeattleNative

    Nice theory, but I think you’re offbase on the offensive analysis, pardon my pun. I agree , our offense is pathetic. However, as the weather warms, so will the hitting. These Mariners have been tragically unlucky. Leagues misadventures were just the tip of the past blunders, including Ichiro’s sunball. At least 3 of our last 6 losses should have been W’s. Those 3 wins would put us closer to. 500 which is probably the best this group could expect. The upside is that our rotation is for real and should be for some time. Their relative ages would suggest many years of productive pitching. Don’t forget, Wedge is a master of pitching and bullpen management. He cut his teeth managing pitchers and in-game strategy. The offense will be fine. Smoak is a budding superstar in the Griffey mold. Figgins won’t be around, preceded by Wilson if the rumors are true. Ackley and Gutierrez will improve the offense if not the defense. Pitching and defense will take us to the World Series. We have that. Offense will win the Series for us. Trader Jack should not and will not sacrifice pitching. Over Wedge’s dead body. I believe help us on the way and that Ackley, Carp and Peguero will make positive contributions this year. Trades will be made and Jack Z will be in the driver’s seat. I hope he doesn’t blow it. We have most of the right ingredients to contend. It’s just getting over that hump, like Wedge said, you win games like today and then you begin to expect to win games like that. Their confidence grows and next thing you know, they’ve won 10 in a row. Could happen, probably not. We can be good, with our starting pitching the skies the limit. Good times are just around the corner.