The NCAA tourney annually revives a sluggish industry. But without the gambling pools and the occasional 15-over-2 win, would such a regional sport be a big deal?
Many fans of the NCAA men’s hoops tournament love to cite the egalitarian nature of the 68 teams in the field. There’s always the chance that Eastern Western from the Incontinental Conference might smite Bloviate State from the Megatron Conference — an undeniably emotionally satisfying sports proposition.
But once the 2 vs. 15 upset is done, an odd thing happens: The tourney peaks, and frequently slides into a fairly pedestrian routine of KentuckyDukeUConn One-and-Dones vs. KansasNorthCarolinaLouisville One-and-Dones. The first weekend is almost always the highlight of the show.
For as inclusive as entry is to the tourney, I wondered how exclusive it was regarding championships over, say, the first 15 years of this century. The answer is 10 winners, with nine titles going to the usual suspects (UConn three, Duke, North Carolina and Florida two each). A Kentucky win in April would be its second in four years, meaning 10 titles in 16 years will have gone to schools where the basketball programs tend to operate their universities.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Major universities should be responsible for doing what they do best: Entertaining the masses with gambling, strong men, cute girls and things that shine and sparkle. Leave the education stuff where it belongs — in community colleges.
The other title schools this century besides the five mentioned include Louisville, Kansas, Syracuse, Maryland and Michigan. Besides being of a kind similar to the multi-champions, they also share a certain geographic isolation: The most westerly team among the past 15 champions is Kansas.
Kansas hasn’t been called “west” since Lewis and Clark.
The last time the West won was 1997 with Arizona, when coach Lute Olson and a team led by Mike Bibby and two Seattle-area stars, Jason Terry (Franklin High) and Michael Dickerson (Federal Way High), beat three No. 1 seeds, a feat still unmatched in tourney history.
The upshot of these developments is that gradually the college game is getting less and less compelling for some of us unaffiliateds. Same exclusive club, same largely regional appeal. And that doesn’t include the discussion of the game’s decline in offense, which is well explained here by Seth Davis at si.com.
I have always believed that the sheer novelty of the 64-team bracket, which adrenalizes the American gambling jones like no other, is the biggest driver of interest in the sport. There is nothing like it on the national landscape, because filling out a bracket, even if no money is at stake, has become an office/factory/classroom ritual that is a national connection outstripping any factional passions for a single team.
I contend that if the presidential election field is taken from the political parties and converted into a 64-person bracket, interest in politics will reach unprecedented heights in America.
Within the industry itself, the 2006 rule by the NBA that forced aspiring pro hoopsters to spend a year in college has helped degrade the game, and not simply from the one-and-done departures of top freshmen talent. While the percentage of players jumping to the NBA is way less than one percent of those playing Division I ball, it is where the roster vacancies are created that has had nearly as insidious a consequence.
Good, older players are transferring among big schools at a record rate, often finding playing time where freshmen have departed, or gravitating to higher-profile programs not just for the chance to win, but to showcase their talents in the hyper-competitive environment of the most global of American-spawned pro sports.
No bigger beneficiary exists this year regarding that trend than Gonzaga, which begins tourney play at 6:50 p.m. Friday night at KeyArena against 15th-seeded North Dakota State (full bracket here).
The Bulldogs this season added two starters from other schools, Kyle Wiltjer from Kentucky and Byron Wesley from USC, to an already loaded lineup. Whether as a transfer forced by NCAA rules to sit out a year (Wiltjer) or as a four-year graduate eligible to play immediately (Wesley), these guys represent a burgeoning talent market that barely existed before 2006.
Once a program is established as a perennial tourney contender, it often becomes a rich-get-richer situation, even more acutely than it was pre-2006. Schools in the Midwest and South, typically campuses in smaller cities or college towns where the program is the chief entertainment, become magnets for players who, rightly or wrongly, think their pro aspirations will be better served where basketball runs the joint.
(Fergawdsakes, the state of Indiana has five teams in the field — all in the Midwest Region. No. 3 Notre Dame, No. 6 Butler, No. 9 Purdue, No. 10 Indiana and No. 13 Valparaiso will all be after the same berth in the championship April 6 held in the state capital of Indianapolis. How much shiny/sparkly can one state’s educational system take?)
The development regarding transfers has given Gonzaga (32-2), which has made 17 consecutive tourney appearances but has never gone beyond the round of eight, its best shot at a national title. As a No. 2 seed in the South Region, I expect it will beat No. 1 Duke and reach the Final Four.
A semifinal win over the East Region champion (No. 1 seed is Villanova) will put the Zags in the title game, which will be, by all that is holy in Vegas, Kentucky.
Win or not, Gonzaga getting to the Final Four will solidify its place as a magnet for transfers, as it has been for quality international players. It will be in position to be a have in college basketball, ranking it with Arizona in the West.
Spokane and Tucson, soon to be right there with Chapel Hill and Lexington. It’s not a 15-seed beating a 2-seed, but something needs to sustain the enterprise beyond the first weekend.