One of the few joys of approaching the ripe age of 48 is that curmudgeonliness comes much more naturally than it used to, and I get a good strong dose of it every time the NCAA basketball tournament nears. You see, I'm a big basketball fan but I don't do brackets. I feel my hackles start to rise every time someone refers to the tournament, which starts March 18th, as the greatest sports event in America.
It isn't, and although it once may have been that good, changes in the nature of the sport mean that it won't reach those heights again. The quality of the play has declined, and it isn't likely to improve.
This isn't to say that the tournament lacks excitement. During the next three weeks there will be sixty three elimination games leading toward a championship matchup. The nature of the matchups will cause confusion. Is the fourth best team in a big conference like the Big East or the Pacific 10 really better than the champion of a mid-major conference like the MAAC or Ohio Valley? Sometimes they are; sometimes not.
We all know that some No. 10 or No. 11 seed is going to ruin a lot of people's brackets by soaring to the sweet sixteen, but no one knows which one. There will be close games in which some of the players on the losing squad will have to confront the fact that the basketball is no longer the number one priority in their lives. And for others a solid performance will be the key to NBA glory or at least a career in the leagues overseas. For those reasons the unpredictable games will be fought with an intensity that borders on desperation.
All of this adds up to excitement but pardon me if I set the bar higher for a championship tournament. Crowning a champion is not just about having a good time; it's about rewarding excellence, and if you're lucky enshrining greatness. Some of my attitude is born of just that sort of luck.
My earliest memories of the NCAA tournament are of the Sidney Wicks-Curtis Rowe UCLA championship teams. Then came the Bill Walton UCLA teams, the almost undefeated then undefeated Indiana University Hoosiers of 1974-76. A few years later the national final pitted Magic Johnson's Michigan State Spartans against Larry Bird's Indiana State Sycramores. And finally in 1984 two more future Hall of Famers squared off in the Finals when Patrick Ewing's Georgetown Hoyas downed Hakeem Olujawon's Houston Cougars.
I didn't know it at the time, but I'll admit it now—I was spoiled. Around that time – the mid '80s – cable sports television, the behemoth known as ESPN and others who didn't fare so well, was finding its footing. They needed as much content as possible. Sports until then had been a mélange of three hour broadcasts and 10 minute news wrap-ups.
Wall-to-wall sports, 24/7 seemed like a large bill to fill but the sports networks turned to college basketball and, with reason, they haven't looked back. The NCAA provided the networks with an almost never ending supply of games that ran from Happy Hour in the East until after midnight on the West Coast every weeknight. This brought a growing level of hype—and sadly, broadcaster Dick Vitale's hysterics—to the sport.
The tournament has grown to a multibillion dollar enterprise that dwarves the NBA Finals and the World Series as well as every major tennis and golf tournament. In terms of betting and hype, March Madness has only The World Cup and the Super Bowl as rivals.
But all the media glare and office pools can't hide the fact that the quality of the collegiate game has declined. In the mid '90s, Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant went straight from high school to the NBA and quickly became stars en route to Hall-of-Fame caliber careers. Within years, though it felt like seconds, the concept of staying in school vanished. Although I don't fault young men for grabbing millions of dollars when those riches became available to them, the loss of the three and four year collegiate player has had a calamitous effect on both the pro and college game.
In the pros, coaching staffs have ballooned and now approach double digits with several men assigned the task of helping the recent draftees mature into players and men. In the collegiate ranks, fundamentals have suffered tremendously; the game simply isn't as well played as it was when legendary coaches like Dean Smith or John Chaney could spend three or four years schooling their charges and teaching them to respect the game.
I watched the recent #1 v. #2 showdown between the University of Memphis Tigers and the University of Tennessee Volunteers, and while it was a good, close game, the lack of execution was stunning. Late in the game, with Memphis on a roll, the Tigers ran three consecutive fast breaks in which they failed to properly space the floor and, as a result, did not score.
A score would have forced the Vols to foul intentionally to try and catch up, and Memphis, though ranked #1 in the country at the time, ranked #341 among all Division One schools in free throw percentage. In response, I suppose the Tigers could have fouled back since the Vols also ranked near the bottom among Division One schools from the foul line.
I tried to imagine Bobby Knight, John Thompson or John Wooden tolerating that and laughed. Since the top players are only in school for a year—and that's due to a fairly new age minimum in the NBA—before heading off to the pros, what power does a coach have to insist on refinement of play?
I'll watch a lot of college ball over the next month, but I'll also keep my expectations in check. There will be lots of close games, and several players will make a name for themselves. It's a great event, but I won't expect greatness. Those days are gone and not coming back.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.