By Michael Rosenberg
If you don’t like the NCAA tournament, then don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re probably an America-hating socialist. The tournament is hate-proof. Even when it’s bad, it’s good.
It is pretty widely accepted among analysts that this is the worst NCAA tournament field in memory, which amuses me. Does anybody actually remember how strong the 2004 field was? Or the 1988 field? Of course not. So who cares how strong this year’s field is?
And yet, I’ll admit: This has been a strange year in college basketball. To start with, it is possible that the top two picks in this summer’s NBA Draft will be college players who didn’t, you know, play college basketball.
Kyrie Irving of Duke is the likely No. 1 overall pick, and he has played 231 minutes of college basketball. Irving missed most of the season because of an injured toe, which sounds so very wussy but must have been very painful. (That must be annoying, missing almost the whole season because of an injured toe. You know people are looking at you thinking, “Oh, a toe! Come on! What will you do next? Fracture your eyebrow?” Meanwhile, you can barely walk.) Irving is hoping to play in the tournament this weekend. If he is healthy, Duke has to be the favorite.
Enes Kanter of Kentucky is a possible No. 2 pick, though when I say “Enes Kanter of Kentucky,” that’s mostly so you can send him a postcard. He doesn’t actually PLAY for Kentucky. Kanter is permanently ineligible — and since he is a sure top-five pick, he will become the rare none-and-done player. I can’t wait until Kanter is drafted and John Calipari declares it the greatest day in the history of Kentucky basketball.
Ohio State is the No. 1 overall seed. Yet the Buckeyes’ best player, Jared Sullinger, is a freshman — and so is their point guard, Aaron Craft. They don’t have a great penetrator — the offense is basically throw it into Sullinger, move around, and have him either score or pass to the open man. It is actually beautiful to watch, and remarkably efficient, and the Buckeyes might win the national title. It’s just an odd way to get the No. 1 overall seed.
So, yeah, it’s been a strange year. And nobody can reasonably argue that the talent level in college basketball is as good as it used to be. The most gifted players leave before they fully develop — guys like John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Derrick Favors and Greg Monroe could be dominating college basketball right now, but they all left for the NBA.
And you know what? I DON’T CARE. The talent level is not as high, but the game is just as intriguing. If anything, it has turned this into the era of the great college player — the guy who may never make an NBA All-Star game but is a joy to watch right now.
BYU’s Jimmer Fredette will never be more entertaining than he is right now. Connecticut’s Kemba Walker is headed for a good NBA career, but he is 6-foot-1 and is not a great outside shooter. It is hard to see him producing as many great end-of-game moments in one NBA season as he has this year. Players like Ben Hansbrough of Notre Dame, or Duke’s duo of Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith, are peaking now, in their college years.
Throw in the guys who probably will be big-time NBA players — like Irving and North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes — and you have an intriguing mix of talent and experience. It will make for some great matchups as the tournament unfolds.
I’ll admit that I probably love the NCAA tournament more than a fully grown man should. Can you blame me? It seems like this week, everybody in America ignores their job to watch the tournament, and for me, watching the tournament actually is my job. This means that, for this week only, I have a great work ethic! Please tell my parents.
Still, even if you forget my personal feelings, I think this is the most popular sporting event in the country. Not the most-watched. But it’s the one that gets the biggest cross-section of American society truly excited. Diehard fans love it and non-sports fans embrace it.
I don’t know exactly why it’s so popular, but it certainly helps that you can gamble on it. OK, fine: You can gamble on anything. You can bet on preseason games, Super Bowl coin flips or which one of your nose hairs needs to be trimmed. (That one. No, not that one — THAT one. There you go.)
But gambling on the NCAA tournament is different because it is so gloriously simple. You don’t even need to understand the concept of point spreads. You just pick winners. You pick a few upsets, and you pick a team to win the whole thing, and you fill in the rest, and you’re all set. You don’t need knowledge, because the NCAA selection committee has seeded every team. You just need to know the difference between the numbers one and 16. Most Americans learn that by high school.
Armed with your knowledge of numbers and a $10 bill, you’re all set to enter your office pool. If you have a lot of knowledge, it helps — but you can do lousy in your pool even if you’re a brilliant college basketball expert. At least, that’s what I tell myself.
This is also the only sporting event where it is perfectly acceptable for the participants to talk about gambling. You’ll never hear Tom Brady say, “I’m telling you, I really like our team giving less than six and a half on the road in December” but I promise you that players will talk openly this week about filling out brackets.
This is why I feel bad for teams like North Carolina-Asheville and Arkansas-Little Rock, who had to play Tuesday night in the “First Four.” Bad enough that they can’t say where they go to school without giving directions. They aren’t even really in the bracket! That’s brutal. People didn’t even pick them to lose.
And by the way: What is with this “First Four” business? I mean, I get that the tournament expanded to 68 teams. And so we have to have four more games than we had when the tournament had 64 teams as the Lord intended. But why does the NCAA call it “First Four”? There are eight teams! It’s the Final Four, not the Final Two Plus A Title Game.
The problem is that the NCAA never met a sentence it couldn’t complicate with needless clauses to confuse matters so the situation was complicated by it. For years, nobody complained about the names of Division I-A and Division I-AA. Yet the NCAA went with FBS and FCS anyway. We all understood the different regions of the NCAA tournament, so the NCAA decided to rename them after cities, which nobody liked. The pod system is still baffling to people.
And yet, no matter what the NCAA does, or threatens to do, its men’s basketball tournament just rolls on. Maybe that is the best thing we can say: nobody can screw up March Madness.