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NCAA tourney has lost its mystique
There is an adage in coaching that properly states if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse. The adage applies to NCAA basketball and its overhyped gambling brackets.
Dick Vitale’s “Big Dance” is a 36-year-old Peyton Manning, still must-see TV but clearly not what it used to be. A tournament long hailed as the most exciting and best way to determine a national champion has been reduced to thriving as Las Vegas' bottom chick. The games, the players, the coaches all take a backseat to the brackets.
A mediocre district attorney could easily persuade a grand jury to indict CBS and ESPN executives and broadcasters for shameless bracketeering.
Sunday, when the men’s bracket was revealed, Jay Bilas, arguably the brightest and most original mind in sports broadcasting, babbled incessantly, half-heartedly and somewhat pointlessly that the selection committee punished teams for schools they lost to rather than reward them for schools they beat.
“But I’m not saying the seeds are wrong,” Bilas added. “It’s that the theme of this is, ‘Who did you lose to?’ ”
Nope. The theme is the NCAA Tournament is in decline and in need of an overhaul. Its greedy, television-driven expansion over the course of four decades (from 32 to 68 teams), coupled with the off-to-the-NBA talent drain during the last two, has left discussion of the games to the analytic, saber nerds.
Debating RPI vs. BPI isn’t as entertaining, thought-provoking or mainstream-enticing as arguing Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson or Hoya Paranoia vs. Phi Slamma Jamma or Fab Five vs. Duke.
Jay Bilas was born to analyze the latter. He’s not being provided the resources.
You know who the most famous and marketable star in college basketball is?
Baylor’s Brittney Griner.
You know who the second most famous and marketable star in college basketball is?
Notre Dame’s Skylar Diggins.
I’m not exaggerating. I believe more sports fans (and non-sports fans) can identify Beauty and the Brit and what schools they play for than any men’s player on the Associated Press All-American team. Hell, who is on the AP All-American first team? I don’t know. I can speculate. Miles Plumlee? Cody Zeller? Ryan O’Kelly? Without the help of Google, I can’t name one player on Louisville’s squad. Google is also where I learned Miles Plumlee is the stiff my Pacers drafted and his brother Mason plays for Duke along with Ryan Kelly. I know Seth Curry plays for Duke because I’m in love with his mama (no disrespect, Dell).
I know all of the coaches. But even the coaches aren’t nearly as interesting as they used to be. They’re multimillion-dollar, sanitized corporate spokesmen now. Comparing Bobby Knight, Big John Thompson, The Tark, Jim Valvano, etc., to Rick Pitino, Coach K, Tom Izzo, Roy Wiliams, etc. is the equivalent of comparing John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy and Malcolm X to George W. Bush, Barack Obama, John Boehner and Jesse Jackson.
The first group was a threat to the establishment. The second group is the thinly disguised marketing arm of the establishment.
The NCAA and its television partners can no longer disguise what’s wrong with college basketball. The game has no imagination-capturing transcendent stars. The coaches stand for nothing beyond their next renegotiated contract. College hoops is short on sizzle and substance. Imagine Playboy without fake boobs and well-written, provocative stories. It might as well be National Geographic.
Furthermore, the parity-ridden tournament, which ascended in popularity thanks to great players and great teams, no longer reveals the best team in shamateur basketball. This year, more than any other, the Big Dance, will reveal which good team got luckiest in March.
I make this point because I get tired of hearing how college football is inferior to college basketball because the polls and the BCS are not the best way to determine a champion. Neither is a single-elimination tournament. Professional baseball and basketball, with their grueling best-of-seven series, consistently identify their best teams.
The NCAA Tournament’s lone justification is excitement. It’s an exciting event. But, like Jenna Jameson a year from age 40, the Big Dance has taken a few too many spins on the (stripper) pole. It’s time for a tummy tuck, a boob job, a little Botox and collagen.
The women’s game is the key to fixing the men.
Because no sane women’s player would leave early to disappear on the WNBA circuit, women’s college basketball still can produce stars. Griner and Diggins are stars because they’re seniors. We’ve had a chance to learn their stories, watch them develop. Griner put up 50 in one game. She occasionally dunks. She’s a once-in-a-generation talent. Diggins is the Serena Williams of hoops: a beast on the court and a gorgeous, social-media-friendly fashion plate off it.
The biggest problem with the women’s game is its refusal to move out of the growth-limiting shadow of the men’s game. The women’s tournament should be played in February or April, not March when everyone is watching the men.
The next Griner and Diggins should have the tournament spotlight all to themselves. Once you move the women’s tournament by starting the women’s season one month earlier or later, then you begin experimenting.
First thing I’d do is give women five years of playing eligibility and a sixth year if they redshirt. Give them a real chance to develop into TV stars. This also would give the women the extra benefit of more academic patience and development.
Step No. 2, I’d kill the conference postseason tournaments. The regular season is the fairest and most accurate way to prove greatness. No one needs to luck their way into the tourney.
My next step would be tweaking the women’s NCAA tournament. A 64-team field is a joke for the women. There’s not nearly enough depth to power a legitimate 64-team field. I’d reduce the field to 52 teams. I would seed the teams 1 to 52. The first two rounds of the women’s tournament would be single-elimination. The top 10 seeds would receive a bye from the first round. The No. 1 overall seed would receive a bye from the first two rounds. So on day one of the tournament, 42 teams would compete in 21 games. The second round of the tournament, 30 teams (21 survivors and seeds two thru 10) would compete in 15 games.
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The first weekend would produce a Sweet 16 (No. 1 seed would be added to 15 survivors). The following weekends, on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, the Sweet 16s would participate in best-of-three series that would reduce the field to eight teams, then four teams and then two.
The tournament would take five weeks: single-elimination weekend, Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, Final Four and Championship series.
What you would hope is that the 16 best women’s programs and stars would showcase the women’s game for a month. Best-case scenario, the next Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins meet in a best-of-three series to cap the season.
With all of these blossoming TV sports networks in desperate need of original, compelling, DVR-proof content, it’s time for the women’s game to step out from the shadow of the men and stand on their own. The ladies may not realize it, but their game has a huge advantage over the boys. Griner and Diggins stay all four years. The ladies can build a following.
Plus, tweaking the women’s game could prove to be the key in improving the men’s. Besides exploring ways to massage the tournament, giving women extra years of eligibility and educational opportunity might be a way to justify paying the men in football and basketball for the revenue they generate, which might bait the men into staying in college longer.
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