Sports Nut

The Final Snore

A charmless oligarchy of schools has sucked the excitement out of the NCAA Tournament.

Final Four practice. Click image to expand.
The Michigan State Spartans

Thirty-five years ago, I climbed onto a bus in Milwaukee, Wis. * About 19 hours later, I climbed off the bus in Greensboro, N.C., where the Final Four was taking place. In one national semifinal, there was UCLA, which had Bill Walton and had won the previous seven national championships in a row and nine of the previous 10, and North Carolina State, which had David Thompson. The Thompson phenomenon is very hard to explain unless you saw him play, in which case you would believe to this day that a man could fly.

The other semifinal featured Kansas and Marquette, my own alma mater. This game was something of an afterthought; Al McGuire, the genius renegade who coached Marquette, pronounced himself grateful to be playing in “the JV game.” He was being kind. Marquette won by a forgettable 13 points. Meanwhile, N.C. State and UCLA played an epic two overtimes. UCLA blew big leads at the end of regulation and in the second overtime and lost, 80-77. This was like feeling the tectonic plates beneath the entire sport shift. UCLA simply won this thing every year. UCLA did not pitch away games that it had wrapped up. Want Reason No. 587 to be grateful that Billy Packer has been sent, well, packing by CBS off to the Old Stick in the Mud Retirement Palace? He’s said several times that, in general, he doesn’t think that it was much of a game. If you ignore the fact that an entire epoch in the history of the sport had ended almost overnight, he’s right.

(For what it’s worth, N.C. State drilled Marquette pretty badly for the national championship on Monday night. McGuire picked up two brainless technical fouls right before halftime, and the 76-64 final was the result of extended garbage time at the end.)

The dynastic UCLA period that ended that weekend had not been good for the tournament. The Bruins even managed to win two championships in the Sidney Wicks-Steve Patterson interregnum between the lordly reigns of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton. There was a sense, always, of forgone conclusion to the proceedings. Once UCLA finally lost, though, and its 1975 championship notwithstanding, the tournament cracked wide open. The next five champions were, in order, Indiana, Marquette, Kentucky, Michigan State, and Louisville. There wasn’t another repeat winner until Duke went back to back in 1991 and 1992. Why, then, did this year’s tournament—which has been one of the most boring on record with one, count it, memorable game, the Villanova-Pittsburgh East Regional final—seem to have about it the musty, fusty aroma of those days when UCLA won it every year? Because instead of UCLA winning it every year, there are now between five and nine UCLAs that can win it every year. It’s just as sterile and dynastic as it used to be.

Let us be clear. I’m not alleging a cabal between the NCAA, CBS, and their various corporate suckfish, except to the extent that they have conspired to make the tournament huge. Neither am I one who believes that, if they had managed to put more “mid-majors” into the field, anything much would have changed. The field did not lack anything I noticed, because St. Mary’s was left out in favor of Arizona. The trumpeted love for the Cinderella stories always is overblown, anyway, particularly by network shills who otherwise don’t want those schools anywhere near their bonanza on the final weekend. The TV ratings are stronger than they ever were. There’s no indication that a run by, say, Dayton to the second weekend would have improved them conspicuously. (Recall Packer’s graceless treatment of George Mason during its run to the Final Four a couple of years back.) People love their Cinderellas not because they provide the illusion that anyone can win this event but because, occasionally, they cover in the early rounds and everyone makes money. (Thank you, Cal-Northridge, by the way.) But, in terms of the tournament’s ultimate outcome, the presence of more mid-majors generally means next to nothing by the time you get to the regional finals, which is where the stasis sets in, year after year.

There’s no going back, either. This damn thing is a destination event now. In 1974, I recall there being two rows of media at courtside. In 1977, at the Omni in Atlanta, my ticket for the championship game cost nine bucks. Now, the whole Final Four annually is subsumed by that odd lot of suits and haircuts that infests every major sporting event. The luxury-box crowd has come to town, and the event has suffered for that. (That’s not even to mention the basketball demimonde of gamblers, hustlers, player pimps, shoe-company panderers, and other grifters in sweat suits who turn up every year. But at least there’s a certain raffish charm to those thieves.) The size of the event has rendered it indistinguishable from every other similar event. The Final Four is now the Super Bowl, is now the Derby, and so on. Its grandiosity has rendered it impossible to contain, and that same grandiosity brings with it a demand for consistency, for an easily defined cast of characters, a rack of brand names consonant with the corporate class that’s come to run the thing. We are now back in the tedious dynastic years, except that we now have Tudors, Stuarts, and Plantagenets, and not year after year of the House of Windsor. There are no usurpers any more. Four times the predictability and, yes, four times the boredom.

Look at your Final Four this year. Outside Villanova, which is playing better than anyone else at the moment, you’ve got North Carolina, placidly humming along like the well-heeled conglomerate that it is; UConn, which is trying to get through this tournament two steps ahead of the NCAA enforcement posse; and Michigan State, whose only chance to win this thing is to gum up the game with roller-ball defense, chuck up some three-point shots so as to have rebounds to pursue, and altogether render its games into something that makes me prefer to drive 10-penny nails into my eyeballs than watch. These are all major corporations within what has become the industry of college basketball. In the past 10 years, these four teams have combined to appear 12 times in the Final Four since 2000.

They’ve won three national championships between them. North Carolina and Michigan State have been in the last weekend simultaneously three times over that span. This isn’t parity. It’s oligarchy. Its popularity has changed the tournament into something more than it was and less than it should be. The event has grown beyond charm. It has outgrown its soul.

Correction, April 3, 2009: The article originally stated that the 1974 NCAA Tournament took place 25 years ago; it took place 35 years ago. (Return to the corrected sentence.)