Monday, March 15, 2010

What Does March Mean For The Slightly Less Mad?

I like the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship Tournament. I even used to get a little insane for it, creating journals of the impact players for each team and watching games every waking hour. I don't regret putting that time in, either, because college basketball was in its heyday when I was a youth. Some specific memories? Well, sure, I've got a few:
  • Joe Smith helps Gary Williams take Maryland to the Sweet Sixteen and a 26-8 record in his first season on the job.
  • Marcus Camby leads an upstart UMass team past my dad's alma mater Georgetown on their way to the Final Four in 1996.
  • I watched UConn beat Duke in 1999 with the girl who would end up being my first girlfriend (hey, we remember what we remember).
But these days, I'm not quite so crazy about March. There's nothing wrong with the tournament; it's still a great format, and a ton of fun for people who like college basketball, or just like their alma maters, or just like gambling. The problem for me is that I don't really fall into any of those categories.

College basketball is entertaining enough, I suppose, but for all the points that are scored and plays that are made, basketball feels surprisingly slow to me. There seems to be an inordinate amount of dead time, particularly in the college game with a 35-second shot clock. And it's no surprise that basketball has become notorious for having no drama until the last five minutes. That's the point that fans can see strategies play out and plays drawn up. The problem, of course, is that if the game isn't within a few points, you see desperation fouls and bad shots at the end of the game. It's frustrating to see the worst basketball played at the most dramatic point in the game.

Regarding alma maters, maybe I'd be more into basketball if I went to Maryland or Pittsburgh or Georgetown, but I went to Penn State. The Nittany Lions, NIT champions last year, finished this year 11-20 and just 3-15 in the Big Ten. They have exactly one signature win in the past twenty years: a second-round upset of North Carolina in the 2001 NCAA Tournament. That puts them on par with teams like Wichita State and Hampton. But to be fair, I'm not rabid about Penn State football either, so it can't all be that the Lions stink.

Gambling is alright from time to time, but I can't usually bring myself to gamble on something I don't care about. And that's why I'll be losing $40 when the Washington Wizards don't win the Eastern Conference this year. Probably should've just bet on the Caps.

Has the lure of the NBA and its money sapped college basketball of top-tier talent? I'd say that's probably true. But I think that we were less aware of it when high school players immediately went into the draft. Players who had the option of going straight to the NBA out of high school and chose instead to go to college seemed to be more interested in college basketball, seemed to stay longer, and helped to create more of an identity for their universities.

I don't think forcing young players to spend a year in college (or in the case of Brandon Jennings, overseas) improves college basketball. I think it hinders the ability of coaches to imprint themselves on a team, and instead you see the most talented teams be successful, because chemistry and coaching aren't as much of a factor with teams that play 28 games together. That's why Kentucky is my pick to win it all. Not because John Calipari is a superior coach, but because he's a superior recruiter. In today's NCAA basketball, more often than not, the talent will bear out.

So, while I'm sure I'll watch my share of tournament basketball in 2010, I'm once again expecting to spend more time focused on baseball spring training, and tweaking my fantasy baseball roster getting ready for opening day, and trying to analyze the Washington Redskins offseason moves (or, so far, the lack thereof). I guess I'd better fill out a bracket all the same, though. It wouldn't be March if I didn't.

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