By Mark Heisler
So, how’s your bracket doing?
That bad, huh?
The modern NCAA Tournament, like so much else today, isn’t about just them, but you!
For purists (read: actual fans, as opposed to people filling out office pools), there’s still enough left of the tournament to draw a double-figure TV rating for the championship game (CBS is praying), but it may be close.
The NCAA’s perfect tournament would see the No. 2 and 3 seeds crash in the first four rounds, creating the buzz factor that gets someone named Ali Farokmanesh on Sports Illustrated’s cover, but lets all four No. 1 seeds make the Final Four.
This year, Kansas fell to Northern Iowa and this Farokmanesh person in the second round; Syracuse to Butler in the third round, and NBA-stars-in-waiting-but-not-for-long-studded Kentucky in the fourth to West Virginia.
Duke, the surviving No. 1, had to sneak past Baylor, another nobody from nowhere at season’s start.
This, at least, gives America someone to root for: whoever the Dookies play.
If college basketball, once the girly-man little brother of college football, took a rocket ride into the stratosphere of marquee attractions, the rocket has reached its apogee.
Actually, it reached it from 1992 to ’94, the last three NCAA championship games to draw World Series-like 20-plus TV ratings.
Now the Finals are descending—or hurtling—toward single figures after last spring’s record-low 10.8 for North Carolina’s demolition of Michigan State.
Since NBA economics require many dollars, games and l-o-n-g, d-r-a-w-n o-u-t playoff series, the NCAA Tournament is the highest-level single-elimination event in basketball, making it special.
Nevertheless, in the Big Dance’s present incarnation, other words come to mind, like bloated, over-commercialized and bland.
Where have you gone, Billy Packer? Will someone please tell Clark Kellogg that however glib it sounds, saying a team should “get in transition” is like saying it should make more of its shots.
What if the other team doesn’t want to let them get in transition?
This just in: It doesn’t. Today’s teams don’t just let you take the ball off the board, outlet it and run a track meet to the other end. Instead, they balance the floor on offense, enabling them to get back when the ball turns over.
Of course, Kentucky’s John Wall is another matter. He just gets the ball, turns around and zooms to the hoop, making everyone in his path look like traffic cones.
Unfortunately, there’s only one of him. And before him, there were none. But I digress.
Modern college basketball is often dated back to the 1968 game in the Astrodome between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s UCLA team and Houston with Elvin Hayes.
Personally, I date it back to the 1964 Final Four in Kansas City when UCLA won its first title, beating Duke. I was there with my brother, Gerry, and my friend, Ben Kahn, having driven over from the University of Illinois and having bought tickets at the window of the old Municipal Auditorium.
We got seats about 20 rows behind the basket, which we didn’t like. So we sneaked onto the floor, sat among the photographers behind the baseline and watched Kenny Washington, a reserve Bruin forward, knock down his jumpers out of the corner, arcing majestically over our heads.
We also saw “Dr. Strangelove” that weekend. It didn’t get any better than that, at least until I started dating.
Stubhub now sells tickets for both nights of this weekend’s Final Four in Indianapolis’ 70,000-seat Lucas Oil Stadium for prices ranging from $290 to $11,500, but none are even available for the lower sections behind the baseline.
Now if I was a junior in college and someone gave me those tickets, I’d auction them off and buy a BMW. I mean, it’s only basketball.
Five years later, they even started televising the Finals nationally. Now with HD and monster flat screens, like, who needs to be there?
By the ’80s, the tournament was rocking with sensational finales, as in 1983 when Jim Valvano’s rag-tag North Carolina State shocked Houston’s Phi Slama Jamas, and 1985 when little Villanova shot 79 percent in its “perfect upset” of mighty Georgetown. [Editor’s note: Thanks to one of our sharp-eyed readers with a long memory for alerting us to year errors in an earlier version of this paragraph.]
Somewhere in there, CBS decided to tie up the rights, like forever, or at least the next 11 years, for which it paid $6 b-b-billion.
It took football until 1999 to get back into the picture, marquee-wise, with its BCS Championship game, which has since averaged a 17 rating, the highest for any U.S. event but the Super Bowl.
Now the Big Dance starts amid huge interest in the selection process, like mid-major conference tournaments that choose their lone representative, according to the new science of Bracketology.
Invented by a humble St. Joseph’s College PR guy named Joe Lunardi, it’s not vaguely a science. Whatever it is, President Barack Obama filled out his on ESPN’s air, although the Prez crashed along with everyone else on Kansas.
As much fun as it is to watch the mighty fall, too many now fall for the tournament’s good, as stars flee to the NBA at ever younger ages, cutting the gap between big programs with rosters made up of McDonald All-Americans, and everyone else.
Until 2007, when the NBA’s minimum age was 18, high school stars like LeBron James went right to the NBA, and the colleges, at least, never knew what they were missing.
Now, the NBA’s minimum age is 19 and it’s “one and done,” just enough time for college fans to fall in love and have their hearts broken.
Once, Kentucky would have had a young team on the brink of a dynasty. Now the next time half of its players may get together is the rookie-sophomore game during NBA All-Star Weekend.
Wall, the highest-rated prospect since LeBron, is expected to go No. 1 in the June draft (his entry is considered a given). Three teammates—junior Patrick Patterson, freshmen DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe—could go in the lottery.
If freshman backup center Daniel Orton, who was limited coming off surgery, turns pro, he could go in or near the lottery, too.
So that was some devastating loss Kentucky suffered to West Virginia in the Sweet 16 last week!
Wildcat fans were already joking wryly about enjoying their 2010 title before the NCAA took it away, as it did with Coach John Calipari’s 2008 title at Memphis, along with 38 wins and their $615,000 winners share, for using an ineligible player, point guard Derrick Rose, found to have let someone else take his SAT.
Not that that was a shocker, since Calipari’s previous 1996 Final Four appearance with UMass also no longer exists, officially.
Still, UK, which used to recruit just fine on the up and up, or at least without controversy over the favors shown by its famous boosters who owned thoroughbred stables, hired Cal, and we had to sit through all his Fed-Ex commercials.
Fed-Ex, the company with envelopes you can rely on to stay closed when you’re sending cash!
The problem, of course, is (aw, you guessed it) cold commercial reality.
NBA Commissioner David Stern would love a higher minimum age. Among other benefits, players who stay become stars before the NBA ever puts a penny in them, like Grant Hill, who appeared in three Final Fours with Duke.
The NBA Players Association opposes age rules as a freedom issue. If Stern cared enough, he could buy the union off with concessions in other areas, as he did to bump the age to 19.
Now, however, Stern has more pressing issues, like the 50-50 revenue split he vows to get or close shop in 2011.
There’s actually a way to do this:
Raise the minimum age to 20, so a player who starts college has to stay three years, as in baseball.
Any player who doesn’t want to go to college can play in the NBA Developmental League at 18. If he’s drafted, he can make the money mandated by the rookie salary cap. If not, the D-League can enhance its minimum salaries.
In any case, young players’ economic rights would be protected, and the D-League would get new attractions, a major improvement over the present none.
Meanwhile, back among the, uh, amateurs ...
The NCAA can opt out of its deal with CBS this summer, but no other network will pay that much—especially with $2 b-b-billion of the overall $6 b-b-billion due from 2009-2011 in the back-loaded deal.
If there’s any chance of heading off losing the tournament to ESPN, the new predator on the block with its cable subscription revenue, CBS may have to come up with a bigger tournament, literally—like 128 teams.
Then it would really be bloated, the pre-selection excitement would be gone and the brackets would be so big you’d have to lay the whole thing on the floor to see it.
The Big Dance: Enjoy it before it multiplies.
AP / Matt Sayles
Cornell coach Steve Donahue and the team’s unofficial mascot, Big Red Bear, assume the position.