Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 10, 2011

The Madness Is Best Viewed Through Rose-Colored Glasses

With conference tournaments in full swing the focus of fans both serious and casual turns as it does every late winter to college basketball. Although the NCAA men’s tournament doesn’t officially take shape until Sunday’s announcement of the 68 teams selected to participate (the 64 teams in the women’s tournament will be announced a day later); conference games between now and then will do much to shape this year’s bracket. Already there have been surprises and at least one major controversy.

At Madison Square Garden, the Big East tournament began on Tuesday. The University of Connecticut, only the ninth seed in a powerful conference that should send ten or possibly eleven teams to the NCAA tourney, knocked off DePaul and then Georgetown on successive days to move to the quarterfinals. The Huskies, who lost four of their last five regular season games, appear to have turned things around at just the right time behind the scintillating play of guard Kemba Walker. Their hopes of being the lowest seeded team to reach the Big East final on Saturday remain alive after Walker hit a jumper at the buzzer to stun Pittsburgh, the #3 team in the country, 76-74 in the tournament’s quarterfinals earlier today.

Meanwhile the Villanova Wildcats, who like UConn spiraled downhill late in the regular season after being ranked as high as 6th in the nation, were unable to arrest their slide. They suffered a one-point loss to lowly South Florida in the opening round, causing some self-styled bracket experts to question whether the team from the Philadelphia suburbs was still worthy of an at-large spot in the big dance. The reality is that with a season that included six wins against top-50 teams based on the RPI strength of schedule ratings, the Wildcats will definitely hear their name called at some point Sunday evening.

The early going in the Big East tournament also brought the first major controversy of the college basketball post-season. On Wednesday, rallying from a 10-point deficit, underdog Rutgers took its first lead against St. John’s with just 58 seconds to play. But in the wild final minute the Red Storm made five free throws to reclaim the advantage.

However the controversy wasn’t so much over officiating calls made, though some were questionable, as it was over ones missed; with the last two non-calls not even close. With 4.9 seconds left and St. John’s leading 65-63, Rutgers was bringing the ball in from under the St. John’s basket. The play was simple enough; a three-quarter court pass to the Scarlet Knight’s big man, 6-foot-8 Gilvydas Biruta. Biruta was to redirect the ball to a teammate for a last second shot. But forward Justin Brownlee of St. John’s intercepted the deflection. As millions have now seen on YouTube, Brownlee took three full steps with the ball, stepped out of bounds, and tossed the basketball into the crowd with 1.7 seconds remaining on the game clock. There was no call of traveling. There was no call of a turnover for going out of bounds. There was no time put back on the clock; instead the buzzer sounded and the three-man officiating crew left the court.

Some forty minutes later, there was a statement from John Marinatto, the Big East Commissioner. It began, “The Big East conference acknowledges that two separate officiating errors occurred at the conclusion of the St. John’s versus Rutgers game.” But two sentences later it concluded, “Neither error is reviewable or correctable under NCAA rules.” The fact that one day later the three officials “voluntarily” withdrew from the remainder of the tournament was likely small solace to the Rutgers squad.

The action hasn’t been limited to the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden. All around the country, many of the smaller conferences have already wrapped up their own tournaments, with the winners claiming an automatic bid into the NCAA field. These are the teams that will vie for the unlikely role of Cinderella. Among them was Butler, who last year made it all the way to the championship game as a #5 seed before coming up two points short against Duke. This year the Bulldogs upset Milwaukee in the Horizon Conference final to return to the dance.

Even the Ivies are getting into the act. When Princeton beat Penn in their regular season finale Tuesday night, they matched Harvard’s 12-2 Ivy League record. Because the Ivies don’t have a post-season tournament, the tie means that Harvard and Princeton will meet on Saturday on a neutral court at Yale to determine who claims the league’s automatic bid. Should the Crimson advance, it will be their first trip to the NCAA’s in 65 years.

All of this is but prelude to the big tournament itself, which will result in diminished workplace productivity as fans track their standings in innumerable office pools. As many of those will be won by the mail clerk who picks only teams with blue uniforms because that’s his favorite color as by the hard-core bracketologist in accounting.

From now until the evening of Monday, April 4th, when the winning head coach tells CBS’s Jim Nantz how proud he is of “his kids,” it’s the annual national excursion into an always exciting and often dramatic land of pageantry and pomp, of pep bands raising the roof, and of fresh-faced cheerleaders rooting on young student-athletes. Of course, following that script does require a substantial suspension of disbelief.

To enjoy March Madness the way that the NCAA, CBS, Turner Sports, and assorted sponsors would like one to, one has to ignore the fact that a lot of those “kids” are athletes first, and students a distant second, if at all. Each year, once the tournament field is set, the University of Central Florida’s Center for Diversity and Ethics in Sport examines graduation rates of the teams. Last year the overall graduation rate was 64%, which was actually a slight improvement over 2009. More than a third of the players may wear a uniform with their school’s name on it but will never possess a diploma bearing the same inscription.

Maintaining the proper tournament spirit also requires one to turn a deaf ear to the drumbeat of news about programs and coaches running afoul of NCAA rules. If UConn’s success at Madison Square Garden this week presages a run deep into the NCAA bracket, don’t expect the TV analysts to spend a lot of time talking about Coach Jim Calhoun’s recent sanctions. Calhoun has led the Huskies for a quarter century, and is in the second year of his most recent five-year, $13 million contract extension. Last month after more than a year-long investigation the NCAA rebuked the coach for “failing to create an atmosphere of compliance;” and found that the University had “failed to monitor the conduct and administration of the men’s basketball program.” The charges involved attempts to recruit a top high school prospect through a former team manager who wanted to become an NBA agent. The latter paid more than $6,000 in improper benefits to the recruit. Meanwhile Calhoun’s staff, supposedly without the coach’s knowledge, made more than 2,500 improper phone calls and text messages to the would-be agent.

Of course other than harsh words the penalties for this malfeasance were minimal. Calhoun will be suspended for two conference games next season, though not at all for either the Big East or NCAA tournament this year. The University’s basketball scholarships are reduced from 13 to 12 for the next three years, and the program will be restricted in calls and contacts with recruits for the same period. UConn forward Alex Oriakhi correctly observed that the sanctions “seemed like a slap on the wrist.”

Punishments like these border on a wink and a nod, a bureaucratic “nice try, sorry you got caught.” In much the same way, the annual collective shrug at the graduation rate study amounts to a tacit acknowledgement that at too many programs the only student-athletes on the court are the cheerleaders. But for the next 3 ½ weeks, don’t worry about any of that. Sit back and enjoy March Madness. All of the truly maddening parts of the college game will still be there when the tournament is over.

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