Sorry for the late post, guys and dolls. Just sneaking in under the wire here. I wish I had some great excuse for the reason why I'm late on this post, but I don't, so I won't waste your time. Let's just dive right in.
Ever since I graduated from college, watching the tournament always gets me feeling nostalgic for the days when I watched the Madness from a dorm room couch. (Sidenote: remember dorm furniture? Like sitting on a block of wood? Comfy!... shut up, I'm reminiscing.) But there were more than a few schools I'm glad I'm not now nor never was a part of this weekend.
Poor, Texas. Jordan Hamilton has pulled the ball down off a blocked shot with 14 seconds left. He and his fellow Longhorns are clinging to a 2-point lead. All he has to do is pass to a teammate or wait to be fouled. So what does he do?
He burns a timeout. Oops. Minutes later, his teammate gets tagged for a shaky 5-second inbounds violation. Arizona ball. 3, the hard way. Ball game. But you've still got Vince Young's Rose Bowl in the horizon of your rear-view so you won't get too much sympathy from we here at DGWUS.
The worst moments of all clearly came in the game between Pittsburgh and Butler. By now, if you're a sports fan, it's hard to imagine you don't know the details of Saturday night's bizarre finish. For those of you who don't know, Jamie Dixon's Panthers wrote a new chapter in their growing novel of tournament heartbreak. Butler had just taken a 1-point lead, with seconds left in the game, when Butler's Shelvin Mack inexplicably ran straight into Pittsburgh's Gilbert Brown with 1.4 seconds left. Brown hit the first try to tie the game. Game tied. Butler has no timeouts and little to no chance of getting any kind of decent shot off, so the Panthers should be AT LEAST guaranteed overtime.
But that was before Brown clanged his second shot and teammate Nasir Robinson lost his composure. He attempted to wrestle the rebound from Matt Howard and Howard, quickly realizing this, threw his arms in the air to draw a foul. He made the first shot and intentionally missed the second, sending Pittsburgh home short of the Sweet 16 for the third time in four years.
These mental mistakes got me thinking a bit though, about an interesting interview I had seen on PTI the week before. In it, Jay Bilas was asked about the strength of this year's field. He said that he not only felt the field was weak, but that the talent level of college basketball has been dropping significantly for many, many years. Obviously, this is due in part to the fact that such a large number of the talented freshman who enter the NCAA are gone within a year.
It's easy to laugh this idea off at first, but it did get me pondering. Bilas is as smart an analyst as there is when it comes to college basketball. Surely he knows there's a more complicated reason than just the "one-and-done" players, but does his basic point hold water. Is college basketball getting worse? The more I thought about it, the harder finding a conclusion became.
The simple answer would seem to be yes. The talent level in the NCAA isn't what it used to be. Once upon a time, players the caliber of LeBron James, Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant would've attended their respective schools for at least 3 years and the game has suffered because they don't anymore.
Of course, I can only remember so far back. The first years of college basketball I can recall were around the Golden Era of Coach K at Duke. I remember my Dad letting me stay up past my bedtime to watch the end of the legendary Duke/Kentucky game. Part of the foundation for my love of sports was formed that night when Angola native Christian Laettner hit that iconic turn around jumper to put the dagger in Kentucky.
But that was almost 20 years ago.
The 90's saw the start of the new era in basketball, where players like Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett not only went straight from playing in high school to playing in the NBA, but also were paid EXTREMELY well to do so. Not to mention the fact that both quickly entered the conversation of the best players in the league at their respective positions. There was no way this could not have an affect on the young basketball players who grew up at that time. They watched as their predecessors succeeded at a professional level without going to college. Needless to say, for players out there who struggle to find a school they can get into or afford, or who just plain old didn't want to go, this seemed like a great idea.
There are other issues that play into this as well, of course. To me, the next biggest one after the "one-and-done" situation is the dissipation of talent around the country. I think it could be easy to confuse the lack of any kind of powerhouses like Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils or Wooden’s Bruins with a lessening in overall quality. I guess what I’m saying is maybe the pool of talent in college basketball used to be a lot more concentrated on the major programs than it is today, therefore you don’t see dynasties as often or as frequently as you once did.
It used to be that a guy as talented as Larry Bird was crazy to want to play for a small school like Indiana St. He went there to get away from the high profile. He didn’t want the bright lights and intense scrutiny. He just wanted to play and be left alone.
And that was possible.
Back then, a player as talented as Larry Bird could go to Indiana St. and escape heavy attention. In this era of 24/7 news coverage and social networking, that’s just not a reality players live in anymore. Even in the days of Laettner and the Fab 5, you didn't have four ESPN's, plus all the regional coverage that the rest of cable offers.
Kids now know they don't necessarily have to go to a major program to get noticed by league scouts and get a shot at the national title. And this has contributed to the growing strength of the smaller conferences. The obvious example of that this year is Virginia Commonwealth University. Every talking head in the sports media world butchered the selection committee for letting VCU into the tournament. VCU has responded by tearing their way through their first three opponents (average margin of victory = 16 pts). And you'd probably have an easier time recognizing their opponents (USC, Georgetown, Purdue) than finding VCU on a map of Virginia.
But I'm wandering away from my basic question. Is the game getting worse?
Let's come back to last weekend. For my money, the most panic inducing from a single player belonged to UNC's John Henson (not to be confused with the host of Wipeout). Washington was down by 3 with seconds to go, when Venoy Overton panicked sprinted to midcourt, seemingly expecting to be fouled, and hurled the ball towards the basket. But his mental lapse was surpassed by John Henson's. Rather than watch the hopeless shot sail out of bounds, Henson reached out and touched the ball, giving the Huskies possession with about half a second left on the clock. Then, on the inbounds play, Washington's Isaiah Thomas hurled up a prayer that was well short of the rim, but Henson leapt to swat at the ball, nearly drawing a goaltending call. Maybe he knew it was only a two, but given the mistake the play before, it's hard to give him the benefit of the doubt. Besides, why are you bothering to swat it at all? Leave it alone, John.
These pointless moments had no effect on the game, but it was perfect fuel to the fire of what I had been pondering. Was this a sign of the weak state of the game?
Ultimately, my answer is no. It’s impossible to dispute that there'd be far more talent in the NCAA if players stayed there for 2-4 years, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the quality of the game is getting worse. Just because the players aren't as talented as they used to be, doesn't mean that the game they play can't still be played at a high level. I've seen a lot of young kids making many mistakes over this past weekend, but I've also seem some incredible performances over the last few weeks. Kemba Walker's performance through the Big East tournament was incredible. And even Henson, prior to making his mental errors, made an incredibly clutch play stealing an inbound pass from Washington when they had a chance to take the lead. Besides, we all remember Chris Webber's infamous timeout and I'd argue he was as talented a college basketball player and pro as anyone of Durant or Rose's caliber is today. Both can pass him eventually, but let’s not forget, at this stage in his career, Chris Webber was nasty.
Overall, I don’t think the field has gotten weaker, so much as it has become far more even. Clearly the bigger programs are still the heavy favorites for the later rounds of the tournament. But these days for every Florida or Michigan St that makes it to the Final Four, there's a George Mason or Butler waiting to face them. And I think the small schools are starting to catch up.
Just look at the remaining field. Along with the old reliable contenders, UConn, Duke, Kansas, etc., you've got lesser known programs like BYU, San Diego St. and Richmond with just as good a shot as anyone of making it to the championship round. And in a one-game playoff, it's anyone game.
Besides, you tell me. If I told you 21 games in the first weekend were decided by less than 10 points, and of those, 13 were won by 4-points or less, would you tell me that sounds like a bad weekend of college basketball?