How long ago was it that critics were saying college basketball was comatose? No one cared, they said. All the stars had gone to the NBA. No one could identify with the game. The regular season meant nothing.
Of those criticisms, only the relevance of the regular season is still debatable.
Let’s say it. The NCAA basketball tournament is the greatest sustained sporting event in the United States.
Remember, we said sustained, which means it builds to a peak over a three-week period.
Despite the glitches on CBS, despite the arrogance of the network which doesn’t blink an eye over starting games at 10:30 p.m. local time or even 10:30 a.m. local time, the tournament has thrived this year.
Excitement. You couldn’t ask for a better afternoon of entertainment than Stanford-Rhode Island and Duke-Kentucky last Sunday.
The games are competitive - 18 of the 60 played thus far have been decided by 3 points or less or gone to overtime, lower seeds have won 17 and five have been buzzer-beaters.
“It’s been unbelievable,” said Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese Monday “In terms of sheer competition, I can’t remember a more entertaining tournament.”
Tranghese has a vested interest, of course. Not only is commissioner of the Big East, he’s also a member of the tournament selection committee.
Along with great games, there have been great moments, ranging from Bryce Drew’s buzzer-beater for Valparaiso to beat Mississippi in a first-round game, to Connecticut’s Richard Hamilton making one final desperate attempt on a follow to beat Washington.
And unlike past years when the coaches - Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, Kentucky’s Rick Pitino, Indiana’s Bob Knight, North Carolina’s Dean Smith - have been the main story line, this year has been a player’s tournament.
So much so, in fact, that all four coaches remaining - Utah’s Rick Majerus, Kentucky’s Tubby Smith, Stanford’s Mike Montgomery, and North Carolina’s Bill Guthridge - are making their Final Four debuts.
Conventional wisdom, as well as the betting line, suggests that North Carolina and Kentucky will win their semifinal games easily Saturday and stage a mega-showdown for the national championship Monday night in San Antonio.
But even if the title game turns into a Stanford-Utah letdown for those panting for North Carolina-Kentucky, this year’s NCAA Tourament has already been a success of major proportions, filled with some unforgettable moments, both good and bad.
Here are some:
Tie. Richard Hamilton’s game-winning shot against Washington and the gimmick play that led to Drew’s winning shot against Ole Miss.
Valparaiso was the feel-good story of the tournament. Even in defeat, when its fans stayed on the court and demanded a curtain call, Valpo was the little school that could.
Rhode Island, which beat Valpo in the Midwest Regional semifinal, would have picked up the gauntlet, but then the Rams spoiled it by not only losing, but moaning about it while blaming the officials.
Here’s a tip, fellas. Make those foul shots, don’t turn the ball over in the final minute and you, not Stanford, are in the Final Four.
Contrast the way Rhode Island went out, with the way Duke left after having a similiar second-half collapse in its loss to Kentucky. The Blue Devils had praise for the Wildcats and no excuses.
Nothing but class from a classy program and coach.
Most ironic moment
How about Michigan State running a back-door play to end the first half against Princeton?
Right then, you knew the Spartans were going to handle the Tigers, letting them know that they were wise to the Princeton offense, which had so frustrated Nevada Las-Vegas two nights earlier.
North Carolina playing two games in Greensboro. If we didn’t know better, we would think it was the America East final, where the highest-seeded team gets to play the final on its home court.
The committee made a mistake in giving North Carolina two home games. Whether the victim was Michigan State or UConn, it didn’t matter.
The NCAA Tournament is allegedly played on neutral courts, but any game North Carolina plays in its home state is a home game.
Solution: Don’t let the Tar Heels play tournament games - especially regional semifinal and final games - in their home state.
The commitee could have easily flip-flopped Duke and North Carolina in the South and East, sending Carolina out of state and keeping Duke, which won the regular-season Atlantic Coast Conference title by two games, in Greensboro.
Most dominating performance
Fairleigh Dickinson guard Elijah Allen, who lit up UConn for 43 points in an opening-round game against a tough defensive player in Ricky Moore.
Bye, bye and so long
Arizona. The Wildcats couldn’t leave well enough alone and just glide along, winning games by big margins. They still had the no-respect chip on their shoulder and were getting a little too cocky.
It just goes to show - you still have to play every game.