The NCAA wants miracles, and it wants NBA-quality talent. As the National Championship showed, it can’t have both.
March Madness and I had a pretty good run of it this year. It was courteous enough to keep most of the NBA-caliber prospects around through the Sweet 16. I jumped on the UNC bandwagon sooner than usual. Shaka Smart and VCU, one of the two Cinderella teams to make the Final Four, were actually compelling beyond their giant-slaying audacity.
Then we hit that absolute abyss of a title game, and like never before, I found myself asking—admittedly, quite drunkenly—why?
Without opening up too many old wounds, let’s just say that Butler-UConn final was bad like bad has never been seen before. A friend in Canada, generally acknowledged as the friendliest place on Earth, witnessed a bar brawl nearly erupt over the sheer awfulness of that game. “This isn’t basketball!” screamed one generally demure young woman, as she attempted to start a fight with my friend’s sister.
It was, of course, basketball. Technically, anything that follows the rules of the sport attains that honor. The question, though, is why exactly this particular form of basketball was necessary—or why it did anything to make us all better people and, oh yeah, sports fans. By us, I mean the players on the court and fans, because, after all, March Madness is the ultimate democratic institution. It really does belong to everyone, equally.
OK, I’ll tone down the sarcasm. However, it’s hard to not walk away from that game wondering exactly what it means if that’s the peak of the mountaintop. On Connecticut’s side, we saw a perennial powerhouse that, in an off year, had rallied late behind NBA-bound talents Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb to wriggle its way to the final. This is the moralistic side of college ball: Student-athlete-dom is an important aspect of the future pro’s development, as a player and as a person.
Walker and Lamb spent time in the classroom—time as unpaid celebrities forced to mingle with their college student peers. And, admittedly, neither was guaranteed a lottery contract right out of high school. Regardless, it’s hard to feel that Sunday’s game improved their respective basketball minds, or built character. They didn’t triumph over adversity—they yanked harder at the edge of a stinking acid bog.
Brad Stevens and Butler represented the other extreme: a small school that, against all odds, returned to the Final Four for the second year in a row. This, of course, is a large part of March Madness. Enfeebled as Connecticut may have seemed at times, it never could really claim to be the underdog. They got hot, and their victory over a stacked Kentucky team hardly represented a massive upheaval of order and expectations.
Butler, though, was the quintessential underdog—again. And let’s face it, a lot of people watch March Madness to see giants fall, to see big programs lose, and little guys advance. Let’s not make the mistake, though, of seeing parity in college basketball. Some programs are better than others. Maybe NBA prospects leave as soon as possible, but they still choose some teams over others.
In case you think I’m making all this up, there is a regular season that speaks to this point. We aren’t dealing with the perpetually topsy-turvy NFL. There isn’t parity. Instead, March Madness is a format that induces random, unpredictable outcomes. It has much more in common with the long-lost (and still-coveted) five-game first-round NBA playoff series.
Lesser teams can beat better teams in a single game. It’s called an upset, and the NCAA tournament manufactures them. Granted, this is easier without untouchably good major programs. That doesn’t mean, though, that hierarchy is gone from college ball. On the contrary, the fun of March Madness is watching what is left of it being torn down. That is the tradition; it needs villainous John Calipari teams for the fun to really begin.
Butler, for all their valor, were ultimately a mediocre basketball team. You want to claim otherwise, or celebrate their pluck, valor, and guts? Look at Sunday’s game again and explain to me how they were so unmanned by a less-than-fearsome Connecticut squad. In the end, their luck ran out. Talent trumped magic, because magic is for babies and ponies.
College basketball needs to acknowledge that, if it really wants to see the little guy come out on top, the only answer is to purge itself of anyone who doesn’t fall into that category. You can’t build a business model off of miracles and exploited labor.
March Madness isn’t any help to the players moving onto the pros. It’s the endpoint, the period, for most, but for those destined for the NBA, it’s a semicolon, a bridge between two phases. For their development, the regular season is what really matters. March Madness is the NCAA’s moneymaking machine. Yet, it’s of no value to the players who will, one day, make money from the same game.
—Photo AP/Eric Gay