Friday, March 1, 2013

College Basketball Is Weak. Just Admit It

Indiana junior Victor Oladipo
As the 2013 NCAA Tournament approaches, the basketball observer is splashed with weekly excitement when a ranked team goes down to a "lesser" squad. This week, #3 Duke and #1 Indiana lost, which will send second-ranked Gonzaga to the top.

But how much of an upset are these? Not as much as in years past. One analyst believes that almost a third of the field could win it all this season, given the right circumstances and tournament draw. It's a good line, but we'll never know.

For years, college basketball has been watered-down for at least two related reasons: 1) the most talented leave for the NBA after one or two seasons; 2) and almost everyone's in love with the highlight clip. On the sports clip shows, you rarely see anything more than dunks, playground-type sequences (no-look passes, for example), public displays of aggression, celebrations and such. 

Maybe there is no room in the clip show for anything but quick hits. People watch Sportscenter because it's something that can be consumed with no effort. It's not the time for real analysis. Since the show is the first source for most sports fans, that is good and bad news. Volume on or off, multitasking while waiting for that one score to scroll by... it is background music for most American men.

The best athletes in college ball seem elite at a glance, but they are feasting on weaker competition. The ball players who stay through their senior year seem to get swallowed up in the pros. They were twelve-year-olds, gotten too used to besting second graders. There are a few exceptions.

The NBA suffers from this domino effect, too. They deserve it, though, because they've used college as a minor league. Plus, the professional league bought into the "name on the back of the jersey is more important than the one on the front" star-making machine. This machine worked efficiently for commissioner David Stern and the owners--the NBA is now truly global.

All of the look-at-me highlight reels have affected an entire generation of fans and players, which in turn decreased attention to fundamentals, respect for the game and the opponent, and basic team play on every level. It's not the NBA's fault, really. The first sentence of this paragraph is the way of the world, of which basketball is only a sliver.

Some people pretend every year that this team or that player is transcendently talented. In the 2012-13 season, the Big Ten is being touted as one of the deepest conferences ever. Talking head Michael Wilbon has been riding the Big Ten like a fox hunter, to eye-rolling levels. Almost no one except sports geeks even knows who won it all ten years ago, much less the historical significance of today's game.

Hype machines like Magic Johnson and Dick Vitale are calling Indiana senior Victor Oladipo a Michael Jordan/Dwyane Wade-strata player. There are a few late bloomers who suddenly explode to mega-talent heights. But it's more likely that if Oladipo really had the stuff, he would be gone already.

Beware of this "deep conference" talk in the modern era. The same thing happened a few years ago when the Big East got all of those teams into the Big Dance. People went nuts because half of the teams were ranked. A few were bamboozled into thinking that there might be an all-Big East Final Four.

Most of the teams were out by the second week of the tournament.

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