Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 15, 2018

The Madness Begins, Under A Cloud

Our annual collective descent into madness has begun. The brackets for the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament are set, a process that is now a major event in itself. Long before TBS offered up a two hour long selection show on Sunday, scores of projected brackets were being posted online by both amateur fans and professional pundits. It’s been a little more than two decades since Joe Lunardi took time out from his day job as a publicist at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia to predict the entire tournament bracket in advance of the selection committee’s announcement. The term bracketology entered the lexicon soon after. This year the website Bracket Matrix compiled 187 published brackets, a twelvefold increase from when the site went live in 2005.

Lunardi’s bracket for this year’s tournament ranked a middling 75th when scored by Bracket Matrix for picking teams and seedings correctly. In fairness to ESPN’s resident bracketologist, who on a couple of occasions has correctly predicted every team chosen by the selection committee, this was a tough year for the forecasters, with lots of teams on the bubble and a couple of late upsets in conference tournaments that forced the committee to use at-large selections on regular season champions that had been expected to receive automatic bids. The committee’s controversial decision to make Syracuse the last team in apparently spoiled a lot of brackets for folks who seem far more interested in what teams make the tournament field than which one’s players and coaches will eventually cut down the nets at the Alamodome on April 2nd.

The only bracket that actually matters was revealed Sunday on a show that seems to get longer and more chaotic every year. With TBS producing the telecast for the first time, the cable network pledged to reveal all the teams early in the broadcast, atoning for the decision by CBS to tease out the list over most of its own two-hour show in 2016. But inexplicably co-hosts Greg Gumbel and Ernie Johnson did so not by revealing the seedings in each region, but rather by listing first the automatic qualifiers and then the at-large teams alphabetically. Add in technical problems, with the audio transmission running several seconds behind the video at the beginning of the show, and the studio lights going out at one point, and TBS’s first attempt at what should be a pretty simple task was widely mocked as a disaster.

Actual basketball was finally played on Tuesday and Wednesday. The four play-in games were contested in Dayton, Ohio, with one producing a tournament first. When Texas Southern routed North Carolina Central 64-46, securing the West Region’s #16 seed and winning the right to play regional #1 Xavier in the opening round, the Tigers became the first team with a losing record to post a “W” during March Madness.

Texas Southern, a historically black college in Houston, played a brutal non-conference schedule that included early season games against the likes of Kansas, Ohio State, and Gonzaga. The Tigers were 0-13 at one point, but the tough opposition hardened them for play in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. They finished the regular season tied for second before claiming the SAC’s automatic bid by sweeping through the conference tournament, and entered the contest against North Carolina Central with a record of 15-19. Now the Tigers are within three games of .500, and they will climb above the break-even mark when they punch their ticket to the Final Four at the West Regional Final a week from Saturday. Or maybe the Xavier Musketeers will have something to say about that dream in round one.

All of that was but prelude to Thursday’s start of the four days that are the real basis for the tournament’s nickname. Forty-eight games over one extended weekend, including two work days during which productivity sags in offices from coast to coast. The tournament’s first weekend, which begins with a full bracket of sixty-four teams and ends with just the Sweet Sixteen still standing, is the time when many hoop dreams die, and millions of office pool brackets go bust. Romantic notions of Cinderella teams dancing their way right into the Final Four aside, the seedings usually prevail. But if upsets are not as frequent as fans like to imagine, the games are still intense, and the packed schedule means moments of drama come tumbling into view one after another.

In just the first afternoon of play, #16 Penn hung with Kansas, the Midwest’s top seed, well into the second half before finally falling, as had been the case in every one of the previous 133 games between a #1 and a #16. A former Cinderella turned established power, #4 Gonzaga needed a late three from freshman Zach Norvell Jr. to finally put away #13 UNC-Greensboro in a first round West Region matchup. The tournament got its first upset late Thursday afternoon, when #11 Loyola of Chicago ousted #6 Miami from South Region play. The Hurricanes led by one with 9 seconds to play, but Loyola grabbed the rebound of a missed Miami free throw, and the Ramblers raced down the court, with Donte Ingram canning a three-pointer for both the win and the tournament’s first buzzer-beater.  And the first of what will surely be several overtime games was played in the Midwest Region, where #7 Rhode Island finally pulled away from #10 Oklahoma in the extra five minutes, winning 83-78.

In that game Oklahoma freshman Trae Young was the best player on the court, finishing with 28 points and 7 assists. The same could be said about Young for most of the Sooners games this season, as he is widely regarded as the best player in the country after leading the nation in scoring, assists, and turnovers (nobody’s perfect). He’s the first player to lead Division I in both of those first two categories.

Which means of course, that Young has almost certainly played his last collegiate game. While he refused to be drawn into speculation about declaring for the NBA Draft, his father rightly pointed out that returning for his sophomore year would carry substantial risks if Young were unable to match his extraordinary freshman numbers. While Rayford Young didn’t say it, those risks for his son are of course financial. His NBA contract value will likely never be higher than it is right now, so just like his NCAA Tournament experience, Trae Young is about to be one and done as a college player.

Thus, the college game’s best player became a conspicuous reminder of the scandal plaguing his sport, one so powerful and deep-rooted that no amount of March Madness can fully distract us from it. Last fall federal investigators brought charges against several assistant coaches, sports agents, and a senior executive at Adidas, alleging widespread corruption in the college game, most of it involving steering teenaged high school athletes to certain schools for a single season and then in turn to various agents or financial advisers when they turned pro.

Much of the problem stems from the NBA’s ban on drafting players directly out of high school. Rather they are required to be at least one year removed, a rule that created the one and done collegian. That rule seems likely to be abandoned, which will be a start. But more changes are needed, like requiring players who do matriculate to spend three years in college and working to exorcise the pernicious influence of shoe companies on the college game.

For the next couple of weeks, the delirium will take over, and fans will be caught up in the excitement that college basketball at its best provides. But when it’s all over, when the nets have been cut down and “One Shining Moment” has been played again, the corruption scandal will still be there. Until both the NCAA and the NBA address multiple issues, it will continue to fester.

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Responses

  1. I wonder when/if the scholar will ever be put back in conjunction with the term “Athlete Scholar”? Another good article, Mike.

    • A good question Allan. But then along comes the University of Maryland – Baltimore County, with a roster of players who I suspect are a lot closer to actually being student athletes than is the case with any of the power conference programs, and for a moment at least, stops our collective cynicism dead in its tracks. Go Retrievers!!

      M-

      Michael Cornelius
      603.498.527
      http://www.onsportsandlife.com


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