Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 3, 2014

March Comes To An End, Sanity Sadly Intact

March may be behind us, but the month’s famous and much-watched Madness now runs into April. Both the men’s and women’s NCAA Division I basketball tournaments draw to a close this weekend. The men’s Final Four will play before a packed house at cavernous AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys on Saturday and Monday. Sunday and Tuesday the women’s bracket will conclude at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, home ice for the NHL’s Predators. What stands out about both tournaments is the degree to which the usually most exciting three weeks of collegiate sports, from selection to champion, have been woefully lacking in drama.

To be sure there have been upsets, particularly in the frantic first long weekend of the men’s tournament. There was Mercer, a 14 seed, knocking storied Duke out of the tournament right at the start; as well as the always expected 5 versus 12 seed upset specials. Stephen F. Austin beat VCU by a bucket, and North Dakota State was five points better than Oklahoma. But each of the three would-be Cinderella’s promptly lost its next game. By the time the field was winnowed to the Sweet Sixteen just two squads from the lower half of any region’s bracket were still playing and only Dayton, an 11 seed, made it through to the Elite Eight. There the Flyers were no match for overall top seed Florida.

Where in recent years casual fans have been able to root for unlikely Final Four participants like Wichita State or Butler or VCU, the teams that will play in Texas this weekend all represent big-time programs from power conferences, each with plenty of history in the tournament. Florida and Kentucky remind fans that the Southeastern Conference is about more than just football. The Gators haven’t lost a game since early December and have topped the rankings for weeks. This weekend Florida will be looking to add a third national title to the pair the school won in 2006 and 2007.

John Calipari’s latest group of one-and-done players, making their collective pit stop in Lexington before heading to the NBA took some time to come together as a unit. Thus their 27-10 record and deceptively low seeding. But the Wildcats have looked nothing like a number 8 seed, and will try to win Kentucky’s ninth championship, just two years after cutting down the nets in New Orleans.

The American Athletic Conference doesn’t ring a lot of bells with most fans, in no small part because it’s brand new. The breakup of the Big East led to the AAC’s formation, with the UConn Huskies the only charter member of the old perennial hoops power conference to now be playing in its successor. The Huskies won their third Division I championship in 2011 behind the outstanding play of Kemba Walker. Just three seasons later Shabazz Napier is the standout player hoping to carry Connecticut and second-year coach Kevin Ollie to victory.

Unlike the other three teams in the men’s Final Four, the University of Wisconsin hasn’t won a title recently. In fact the Badgers’ only NCAA championship was in 1941. But Wisconsin has come out of the Big Ten to play in 13 consecutive NCAA tournaments, hardly the unlikely resume of some little school surprising the big boys.

The women’s bracket has played out with an even higher degree of predictability, as is usually the case. Top-ranked Connecticut and number two Notre Dame, both undefeated, headline the Final Four in Nashville. They are joined by Stanford and Maryland, two more big-time programs both of which are ranked in the top ten in the latest USA Today Coaches Poll. Of course in recent years the women’s game has tended to be about coach Geno Auriemma’s Connecticut Huskies on the one hand and every other team in Division I on the other. UConn makes its seventh consecutive appearance in the Women’s Final Four and will be seeking its fourth title in the last six years.

While the arena in Nashville and the big stadium in north Texas will both be filled to capacity this weekend, perhaps the television ratings will dip a bit. In the end the Madness this March turned out to be sadly lacking in craziness. Every team that came to the dance with visions of being this year’s Cinderella was sent home long before midnight. Then again, that brusque reality may not impact interest at all. For the truth is that for all that these twin tournaments rely on the possibility of the improbable happening for marketing purposes, in the end in this sport as in life, power and money tend to win out.

One has to look back more than a generation, to a time when these tournaments weren’t nearly the sensation that they are now, for a true fairytale ending. The last one was 1985, when in the men’s tournament unheralded Villanova, with excitable coach Rollie Massimino directing from the sideline, made an unlikely three-week run that culminated in an upset of mighty Georgetown in the championship game. For all of the hype and marketing, there has seldom been anything comparable since, and there certainly won’t be a result like that this weekend. But there still could be some good basketball, some tight finishes, some drama. Maybe not the stuff of legend, and far short of all the hype, but at least worth tuning in.

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