The NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament is in full swing. The original 65-team field has been pared to twelve as I write this, and we'll have our Elite Eight set by tomorrow. Used to be, the entire country would be swept up in the Madness. Offices would be virtually closed for business on the tournament's opening day. CEO's and secretaries alike would agonize over their brackets, struggling to divine which teams might advance through their brackets to reach the mythical Final Four. Vegas would shift into overdrive: only football (Super Bowl, NFL playoffs and college bowl games) generates more action than the Big Dance. Husbands and boyfriends would go missing for the three weekends around which the games were played.
This year? Not so much. Oh sure, hardcore basketball fans are still tuning in. And no one is suggesting that Caesar's should close their book anytime soon. Cool girlfriends can still be found perched on the barstool next to their man as Bill Raftery and Gus Johnson wax hyperbolic when a Dukie cuts back door and lays it in against a renegade, street program like Memphis.
The problem is, that back door cut happen less and less often these days. Top-level high school ballers are pretty much guaranteed to have moved on to the the fame and fortune of the National Basketball Association by the end of their sophomore years. And the creamiest of the crop is more likely to bolt after a single season of collegiate seasoning; they're one and done.
It's hard to blame the "student athletes." Most come from difficult financial circumstances and professional basketball - the League - offers riches beyond their wildest dreams with which they can address their families' dire straits. The victim is the college game. The quality of play in college is almost entirely dependent upon a group of kids banding together under the guidance of a coach and gradually learning the nuances of basketball at its highest amateur level as they grow from boys to young men. It can't happen in a year, or even two.
A generation ago, the best teams in the NCAA Tournament were heavily laden with upperclassmen - juniors and seniors who had played scores of games together and spent thousands of hours in the gym practicing as a unit. In 1982, the Final Four was comprised of North Carolina, Georgetown, Houston and Louisville. The players on the court that weekend included Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. Their supporting casts numbered Sam Perkins, Sleepy Floyd and the McCray brothers, Rodney and Scooter. The first five players listed above are all in the NBA Hall of Fame. The others all had long and productive pro careers.
The brand of basketball on display in New Orleans in March of 1982 was so far above today's college game it's a joke. There is one sure bet, future pro all-star in this year's tournament - Oklahoma's Blake Griffin. There are several others that could develop into something special at the next level - Louisville's Terrance Williams and Connecticut's Hasheem Thabeet come immediately to mind - but no one you would bet even the memory of your no-longer-existent pension on. Greg Oden should be playing. So should Kevin Durant. And Russell Westbrook and OJ Mayo and Derrick Rose. But they're not. They're all in the pros, earning millions before they can legally order a drink. They show up at the arena, drop twenty on their older opponents, then head back to the hotel to play video games in their rooms until they fall asleep.
And the NCAA Tournament stumbles along, with second-tier stars competing against our memories of Bird, Alcindor and Walton. Of the Big O. Of Christion Laettner and Bobby Hurley. The players today blur together, as do the games. Kids rush upcourt in today's game and pass the ball around the perimeter for thirty seconds until someone jacks up an ill-advised, contested three point shot. Entry passes are a lost art. Hell, I'd settle for a well-executed pick and roll.
The only species as endangered as an intricate play in today's tournament is the stunning upset. Cinderella is making fewer and fewer appearances at The Dance these days. Fourteen of the top sixteen seeds have advanced to the Sweet Sixteen this year. For the most part, the surviving schools have the highest-paid, highest-profile coaches who are best able to attract the nation's top talent, if only for a few semesters. The George Washingtons and Miami of Ohios, yesterday's pint-sized heroes, don't stand a chance.
Not to sound like an old coot, but March Madness ain't what it used to be. Growing up a rabid basketball fan and attending both the University of Maryland and University of Michigan, I never thought I'd say it. But I miss Phil Ford and Magic Johnson, hated arch rivals from my formative years. As much grief as they caused my Terrapins and Wolverines, I give them their due. They were great college basketball players. Those were the days.