Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Missed Opportunities and No Cinderella

By Ross Lancaster

Three years ago, it was commonly thought that the NBA's age limit requiring draftees to be at least one year out of high school would serve to improve college basketball. And you can't improve college basketball without improving the NCAA tournament, or so it seems.

Perhaps the NBA is an unfair scapegoat for the reason why the NCAA bracket, once siphoned down to 16 teams on Sunday night, is the chalkiest that it has ever been in the seeding era (since 1979) through the first weekend. Yet, no more than eight players ever went straight from high school to the pros in any given year. While eight players of high quality can make a huge difference to college basketball, they probably can't explain why protected seeds (the one through fours) have made the second weekend 36 of 48 times in the three years since the age limit compared to 26 of 48 in the three years before.

All of this may just be a coincidence. After all, it has been said that this year promised to be one of the most top-heavy seasons ever. However, even in the glory days of college basketball that people refer to so often, where most players stayed four years, there were huge upsets. In fact, the two greatest Cinderella stories referred to by most in NC State and Villanova came from this era within two years of each other.

However, if there is a strong correlation between chalky NCAA tournaments and the NBA age limit, we may know for sure soon enough, as it is rumored that the NBA may push to have the mandatory age to be 20, or two years out of high school for the next collective bargaining agreement. If my theory holds, it may lead to the possibility of Division I basketball becoming more like football, with I-A and I-AA categories, however alarmist it may sound.

And that brings up another point driven home by the 2009 NCAA tournament. The media-driven creation of parity in college basketball is dead.

Yet what is now dead may have never really been living. If parity had been alive, the best day of its life would have been March 26, 2006. The day George Mason beat Connecticut. To fans that love the Cinderella element that this tournament usually presents, that game was the ultimate two and a half hours. And when this decade shuts its doors in eight months, that game will likely go down as the best college basketball game this decade.

While George Mason's run to the Final Four was special, captivating, and everlasting to those who watched, it was paradoxically fleeting and may never be duplicated by any teams at that level of college basketball.

If college basketball truly wanted parity, the NCAA would ban conferences having their own TV deals, create national contracts with four or five channels, and then evenly distribute the money amongst all 340-odd Division I schools and implement other revenue-sharing schemes. Alas, this is not the NFL and the schools that do have the money would never voluntarily give away a lucrative money stream. That would definitely cheapen the special nature of when a lesser-known program does buck the odds and makes it to the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight.
Change a couple things about the first four days of the tourney, though, and it may have been a totally different story as far as the underdogs are concerned.

For starters, and just in the first round, slow starts doomed the comeback attempts of Butler, VCU, Utah State, and Northern Iowa against LSU, UCLA, Marquette, and Purdue, respectively. Akron, American, North Dakota State, and even 16-seed East Tennessee State all were leading or within reach in the second halves of matchups against Gonzaga, Villanova, Kansas, and Pitt.

The second round saw two huge chances for mid-majors as Siena had a surprising late lead on Louisville at 63-59, but the Cardinals got a Terrence Williams three to retake the lead and spur a run. Western Kentucky furiously fought back from nine down with two minutes to go and tie the game with Gonzaga at 81, but then allowed Demetri Goodson's Edney-esque coast-to-coast layup in the final second and also had poor free throw shooting to blame.

And there were also great games being played at a high level between two power conference teams, such as the games between Marquette and Missouri (save Lazar Hayward's crucial mistake) and the Texas/Duke matchup.

Sure, three teams remain from non-BCS leagues in Gonzaga, Xavier, and Memphis. But all three are very established as perennial powers, although it remains an interesting question as to why Gonzaga gets more national respect than the Musketeers. And in the next round, as with the aforementioned game in 2006, the number one team in the nation will take on the lowest remaining seed who very well may have been the last team in the field. However, that is where the similarities between Arizona and George Mason come to a screeching halt.

Not all is bad as far as the remainder of the tournament goes. Save for the Arizona/Louisville game, all of the other seven games should be solid contests with Villanova/Duke, North Carolina/Gonzaga, and Syracuse/Oklahoma standing out as the best.

Here's to hoping for more great games in the second weekend, and please, please, someone save us from another Final Four with all number one seeds. In other words, let's get even some more madness in the final two weeks of the best tournament in sports.

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