I don’t like that college basketball’s regular season provides little postseason incentive. I don’t like that the coach is a bigger personality than the players. I don’t like that the games are played on neutral courts. I don’t like that one bad game or bad call or bad break can end a team’s season. I don’t like that “close” becomes a synonym for “well-played.” And I don’t like that poor play determines the outcome much more often than great play.
Most of all, I don’t like how I’m supposed to just accept that it’s fantastic and wonderful and beautiful, when it’s actually substandard basketball in a flawed format that tells me less and less every year about the game I love, which is the NBA.
I’m not trolling here. As anyone who knows me will tell you, I’ve truly felt this way for a while. Part of it is admittedly a lingering distaste developed over more than a decade of working on a sports news desk and spending countless hours having to plan, preview, write, edit, update and package all of the words and numbers associated with the NCAA Tournament.
Part of it is because for a generation now, the NBA’s best players don’t come from college basketball. They come from high school, or Europe, or a mandatory one-year BMOC pit stop. Thirteen of the 25 All-Stars this year came directly from high school, Europe or one year of college, while only six were on campus for three years or more.
But most of it comes down to this: When it comes to basketball, the NBA is global exceptionalism. It transcends the sport in every way, from talent to athleticism, from coaching to strategy, from conditioning to effort.
The NCAA Tournament is Outback. The NBA is Morton’s. The NCAA Tournament is Men’s Wearhouse. The NBA is Brooks Brothers. The NCAA Tournament is Zooey Deschanel. The NBA is Diane Lane. The NCAA Tournament is CSI. The NBA is True Detective. The NCAA Tournament is owning a pet. The NBA is raising a child. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with the former. But with equal access to both, why wouldn’t you choose the latter?
I will readily acknowledge that I am in a very small minority. Blessed with remarkably good timing – the NFL is dormant, baseball is playing exhibition games, the NBA playoffs are a month away – the NCAA Tournament captivates the American viewing landscape unlike any other extended sporting event.
In last week’s Nielsen ratings, The Voice and The Bachelor also captivated the American viewing landscape. That doesn’t mean those shows are any good. In fact, they aren’t.
So maybe you should ask yourself why you watch the NCAA Tournament.
It could be any number of reasons. You have school spirit, either as an alumnus or a resident. You filled out 37 tournament brackets. You are a “purist” who wants to see the game played with “fundamentals.” You are a latent racist, and the NCAA Tournament is the highest level of basketball where they still let the white kids play.
But it’s certainly not for the quality of play. At its absolute best, the NCAA Tournament is the fourth-highest level of basketball in the world, trailing the D-League, the EuroLeague and the NBA.
In games this weekend, American scored 35 points, Cal-Poly scored 37 points, North Dakota State made 15-of-47 shots, Syracuse shot 0-of-10 from the arc, St. Louis shot 0-of-15 from the arc, North Carolina Central had 11 defensive rebounds and Oklahoma State committed 33 fouls. Predictably, those teams lost.
Also in games this weekend, Villanova went scoreless for five minutes, Kentucky shot 38 percent, Kansas shot 0-of-7 from the arc, Stanford shot 0-of-9 from the arc, St. Louis made 12-of-26 free throws, Virginia had no offensive rebounds and Gonzaga committed 28 fouls. And those teams won.
Go ahead, spit out your automatic kneejerk response of how hard the kids are playing on defense. Of course they are. That’s pretty much all they can do when they play for unimaginative coaches who hold scholarships over their heads as they cruelly demand more effort instead of coming up with schemes that make scoring easier. Do you think it’s an accident that we have had countless college coaches who have fallen on their faces in the NBA, while the only one who has had sustained success at both levels is Larry Brown?
So you watch for the school spirit. Yeah, there was plenty of that Thursday afternoon in Orlando, where Pitt was playing Colorado in a gym that looked like it was quarantined. Or on Friday afternoon in St. Louis, where Stanford was playing New Mexico before thousands of fans disguised as empty seats. Those look real good as a permanent background to your marquee event.
OK, you watch to track your brackets. Every sports website and every office has one. In fact, my wife’s office has one. Three years ago, she filled out a bracket, even though she watched about six minutes of college basketball that season. She picked virtually every game on which team had the higher points-per-possession number. And she finished second. So throwing darts in the dark is a great way to determine your champion.
So you’re a “purist” who wants to see the game played with “fundamentals.” OK, let’s watch a whole series of seamless dribble handoffs and sharp, two-handed chest passes. Let’s watch how crisply the ball moves around the perimeter from player to player. Let’s watch another 30 seconds tick away. And let’s watch someone hoist a bad 3-pointer to beat the shot clock. Again. And again. And again.
And be careful of how much of a “purist” you claim to be, because when it comes to basketball, there’s a very thin line between “purist” and “racist.” Some folks may have already crossed it.
Look, I know I’m using an umbrella in a hurricane here. As inexplicable as I may find it, the allure of the NCAA Tournament is undeniable, gerrymandered into unquestioned permanence and prominence on the American sports landscape. Some wingnut out there will probably try to label me a terrorist. So for the next two weeks I will crawl back into my hole of silent dissent and let everyone have their fun.
And next month, I will have to be satisfied with a postseason tournament filled with teams that play home games in buildings entirely filled with rabid fans. The teams with the most home games are the ones who won the most against an unforgiving but balanced schedule established by the league, not by an athletic director with a checkbook. The teams that win one postseason game don’t start jumping around like children. The teams that lose one postseason game don’t start blubbering like babies.
And the team left standing at the end isn’t there because they threw a dart in the dark and hit the bull’s-eye.