Bernucca: You Can Have the NCAA Tournament

sportsWICHITAstate_t640I don’t like the NCAA Tournament.

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.

LarryBrownGo 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 150px-NBA_Trophythe 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.


  1. Bryan says

    I completely agree with this article. College basketball is like watching paint dry to me. The hand-offs for 30 seconds, just to jack up a terrible shot, drive me crazy. Every year during this time, I have to listen to people claiming that they play great defense in college. If this were true, why do most NBA rookies sit on the bench because they can’t figure out man defense or rotations?

  2. James says

    You can have your NBA, where there is no defense, silent arenas and half the players just showing up for the paycheck. Oh, there are better players? Doesn’t make for a better game. Just because players hit every wide open jumper, doesn’t make the game more exciting, in fact it’s predictable and boring. Almost no ball movement, and scores in the 100’s for all of you people who desperately need instant gratification. All 30 dunks and 50 wide open jumpers, congrats, it should put people to sleep, they all lose meaning when there are too many possessions. Congrats that the game doesn’t matter until the final few minutes. Oh and yes college kids celebrating or crying…DAMN YOU “PASSION”…I DON’T WANT TO SEE PEOPLE CARING DAMNIT! So the NBA doesn’t have as many upsets…well congrats, but newsflash…the best team doesn’t always win in that either. Unless you end the season by crowning the best regular season team, it doesn’t matter, it’ll just make you postseason a little more fair, but not enticing to watch.

    • says

      You are certainly entitled to your opinion and there are varying degrees of truth in some of the issues you raise. But remember that the parallel comparison for the NCAA Tournament is not simply the NBA, but the NBA playoffs, where many of your issues with the league vanish. I could point to the NCAA regular season where there are hundreds more meaningless games in empty arenas than the NBA at a quality approaching high school ball.

      And to say that there is no defense and the best team doesn’t win is simply absurd. If you have ever watched an All-Star Game or one of the charity games played in the summer, you would no what not playing defense against NBA players produces – final scores in the 150s and 160s. Watch a tape of a game in the 1980s compared to today and you will see how much defensive strategy has evolved and improved. It is staggering. And no one I have met in my 30 years covering and editing all sports believes that a best-of-seven series does not produce the better team. The 1995 Rockets were a 6 seed and beat the 3, 2 and 1 seeds in the West and the 1 seed in the East. The 2004 Pistons beat the 1 seed in the East and took out the powerhouse Lakers in 5 games in the Finals. Unless Game 7 is tied with 10 seconds to go and there is a bad call, the better team always wins. And that’s what I want – absolutely no question about who is the best team. Thanks for reading.

      • James says

        Meaningless? There is this thing called rivalries in the NCAA, ones that don’t go away regardless of record. Not overhyped “rivalries” in the NBA which only pop up when both teams are good. Conference titles mean a ton in the NCAA, so do rivalry games, seeding etc. And I’ve seen the NBA, there is no comparison…almost no ball movement, all 1 on 1 garbage. Basically half the time it’s 4 guys standing around the wing, it’s a superstar league, it is pretty boring. A few teams play defense sure…Indiana/Memphis comes to mind. But there are far too many possessions and points scored which really take away from each play. And please don’t talk about rabid fans, I recall the Heat fans walking OUT. As for no question about best team? Ray Allen misses one more shot and you have a different champion, please don’t make that argument so black and white.

        • James says

          And of course the Allen shot, was in game 6. But my major point is…nobody disagrees there are better players in the NBA, but I don’t think that always translates to a better product. Watch a team like Mercer…would the Heat destroy them? Of course. Do all NBA teams play team ball quite like that? No. The individual players are far too good, and it just waters everything else down. I don’t care how many jumpers Bosh can hit in a row from the elbow, it’ll put me to sleep. The entire West scores over 100 ppg basically, that does not have to do with amazing defense, good god spare me of that BS.

  3. Phil says

    Part of the allure of the tournament is the first two rounds where the “upsets” are most likely to happen, so it’s less about sports and more about novelty/surprise. But, frankly, since a few of those happen every year, even that novelty is lost. There are really only two true shocks left – a low-seeded, non-power conference team winning it all or a #16 beating a #1. I don’t even bat an eye at a 12 over a 5 any more and barely do at even a 15 over a 2 or a 14 over a 3.

  4. Thomas says

    Thank you for this article. I’ve been saying the samething the last 5-6 yrs. College basketball is unwatchable to me from the poor officiating, sloppy play, among other things. I do complete the office NCAA bracket, but it’s a guess at best. This Sunday I watched WSU vs UK then turned to the Wiz vs Nuggets. Ending this….I’m right there with you Chris. NBA > NCAA.

  5. Jim says

    I couldn’t agree more with everything you are saying, but here is why most people will never accept your logical points as such.

    NCAA fans enjoy being able to say these kids do it for the love of the game. That it isn’t about the money (which they are all hoping to one day get paid for basketball), or the fame (even though teams like Mercer dance it up after a win), or the individual player, but instead it is about the team as a whole. The problem with that though is that those same people don’t realize how the elite teams in the NBA do play incredible team ball, but they play incredible team ball with elite players.

  6. Michael says

    I don’t agree with all the pro-nba points (the NBA is also flawed) but I do 100% agree with the rest. College basketball has taken a turn for the worse over the last 10+ years. I also dislike to lack of creativity on offense. Part of it is the coaches and part of if it is one-and-done. Why change your game plan to suite your players if your good players change so often? Look at the senior laced teams who always out perform their rankings, some of it is they are older and more mature but a lot of it is the team structure has change over the course of 3-4 years to suit those players.

    I’m not standing up for coaches, they should adapt faster and most are utilitarian dictators caught up in their own money grabbing power games but the trend of high player turnover is not a compelling long term way to create good basketball games.

    • says

      That is for sure. However, I am old enough (and you may be too; I just don’t know) to remember before the HS-to-NBA wave began and coaches imposed their system on 3 and 4 year players then as well. Good coaches by and large adapt their systems to their talent. The game is for the players. And I am a scholastic coach in my spare time. Thanks for reading.

  7. says

    Wow Chris, maybe it’s time to hang up the typewriter and stop being bitter about what others love. You make good points which I actually agree with that not every NCAA is great and the quality of basketball is not the same as 15 years ago.

    Just because the NBA has better players does not make it a better product. When you have a team like Philadelphia who ‘gave up’ on this season and its paying customers to “build for the future” where is the rebate check? And as bad as the Sixers have become in losing 24 in a row, they still have not caught Milwaukee for the worst record in the NBA.

    Talk about home crowds, I’ll be happy to buy an Atlanta t-shirt if they come within 90 percent of capacity for their home playoff game against Indiana or Miami, because we all know how “rabid” Hawks fans are.

    And talk about playoff excitement Chris, since 1969, only one team that did not finish in the Top 3 in their conference standings has won the NBA title. That was Houston in the 1990’s when Michael Jordan was playing baseball.

    Maybe the NCAA Tournament is not for you Chris, but among basketball fans your comments are about as useful as the Lakers front office these days.

    • A.J. says

      Technically, Jordan wasn’t playing baseball when Houston won in 1995. He was rusty, but he played.

      And you’re contradicting yourself. How often does 1983 North Carolina State and 1985 Villanova happen. About as often as the 1995 Rockets happen. Had there had been a shot clock, even North Carolina State and Villanova might never have happened. The NCAA is no different than the NBA when it comes to the high-seeded teams winning the championship every year, even though a billion more teams have an opportunity in the NCAA tournament every year than have an opportunity in the NBA playoffs. This happens every year despite the fact it’s a one and done which can theoretically have a fluke winner, as opposed to a series which always exposes who the lesser team really is.

    • Thomas says

      The last non-power conference team to win NCAA championship was UNLV. NCAA is just as predictable as NBA…..different teams wins, but same big conferences….

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