Yes, this is the same article I wrote on March Madness for concord-nh.patch.com last year, but seriously, I tried to think of something different, and came up with nothing. One question I thought about but couldn’t think of anything is this:
Is there anything these ads can as a substitute for the “tournament heroics” they normally feature? State Farm can only show how Tyus Edney typifies what it takes to be a winner, just like State Farm, so many times. The same 8-10 game winners are used every year, can tourney ads go in another direction? Like I said, I can’t think of anything, but if anyone out there can, leave a comment with your idea.
So here’s the good ol’ “The New March Madness.”
Trying to come up with a new and exciting angle to write about March Madness is tough these days.
We’ve all read and watched pieces trying capture the essence an underdog, stories of dudes who come from tough stuff or who are actually smart and good at basketball at the same time. After a couple of years of not watching a ton of tourney games, I finally had a chance this weekend to reconnect with one of only two entities that could drive me to call out sick from work and lay around for 12 to 14 hours at once. I discovered that times have changed.
The tournament is now a pretty open field. There are the handful of powerhouses on top (Syracuse, Michigan State, Kentucky) then the rest. I can remember, years ago, the delight of convincing that person/those people at work who knew nothing about sports to participate in the office pool. Looking down, as I took their money, and seeing that they picked all the teams with the higher number next to them (“cause the higher the number the better the team, right?”) reassured me that all the basketball I watched and researched throughout the year was about to pay off. Now that same person has as much a chance of taking home the cash as someone who never misses a Big Monday and follows Jay Bilas’s Twitter feed. The leveling of the playing field has made the tourney both harder to predict and more fun for everyone. Now the clueless person at work (clueless about basketball, that is) may have a routing interest and a reason to at least check the paper during the weekend of the Sweet 16.
How did we get here?
As with many aspects of life, college basketball has transformed right before our eyes. The sport that had schools maintaining prolonged dominance and stellar recruiting (Duke, Indiana, UCLA), is now a sport with schools trying to woo”one-and-done” players (explained below) and hoping to have a good two-year run. It is extremely rare to watch a player everyone knows is going to the pros play in the tournament for three years. Keeping top talent in the NCAA for more than 2 years is, sadly, impossible.
It all started way back in 19-diggety2, well, I mean, 1995. Kevin Garnett (’95) and Kobe Bryant (’96)** were players with talent so rare there was no debate that they would successfully transition straight from high school to the NBA. This started a trend of high schoolers foregoing college and trying their hand in the pros. It had a major imapct on the college game because guys who would have been grooming their games during March Madness, becoming more and more well known over a two, three, or four year career, just weren’t there. This left the tourney with a bunch of unknown teams duking it out while the best 18- to 22-year-olds were learning the ropes of the NBA, with varying degrees of success. After tinkering with the rules a bit, players must now be 19-years-old and one year out of high school to enter the NBA. This has bred a new type of college player, “the one and done.” These players simply play NCAA ball for a year then declare for the draft. The frenzy to land a blue chip recruit is overpowering and the top programs hope to get one or two and ride their hot hands to the Final Four. This leaves the tournament with a few loaded teams with the blue chippers and “one and dones” at the top, and teams that had the hot hand along with lesser-known, mid-major teams left to fill out the brackets.
SO, here’s my excruciatingly long-winded point: because there are so many teams that count on having overwhelming talent, and don’t have it this year, it is easier for the lesser “known” teams, like Valpariaso or Virginia Commonwealth, to beat them in the tourney. The mid-major teams don’t have the publicity or reputation of the top programs, don’t attract the top recruits, keep players for four years, therefore have a more cohesive unit on the floor. When the team that’s been playing together as one unit for three years matches up against a team in an off year from a major conference, it’s a crapshoot who will win. For the last three years, there has been at least one team who “surprises” the field and makes it much farther than anyone predicted, and this year is shaping up to be the same. In the pre-one and done years, a lower seed making it far was rare because most of the top teams had loads of talent and chemistry. The fact that today’s teams have one or the other makes “suprises” more frequent, leaving us asking “who will be the upset special this year?” as opposd to saying, “I hope there’s an upset special this year.” So with the changing face of the tourney, the term “upset” is becoming obsolete and the guy who picked Butler to go to the Finals because his uncle’s neighbors’ kid goes there is looking like an expert.
I hope I don’t sound like I’m longing for the olden days, or dismissive of the new era. I love the NCAA tournament, it’s just different, and when you love something, you gotta set it free and let it be whatever it wants to be.
** I don’t have too many regrets in life. One that I do have is not declaring myself eligible for the 1996 draft. I graduated high school the same year as Kobe. If I declared myself for the draft, my name would have been next to Bryant’s and Jermaine O’Neal’s as a potential “high school – NBA” draft pick. It was my one chance to have a professional scout looking down, saying, “Who’s this Sadowski kid?” … cut to highlights of me sweating profusely in lay-up lines and dribbling the ball off my foot during a game.