We shouldn’t be too hard on the kids when they can’t see their loved ones, slaving away as unpaid, Covid-era laborers in the $1 billion sweatshop known as March Madness. But why is it so damned difficult to shoot a basketball through a rim with a circumference of 56.5 inches? And does it amplify the unspoken truth about a sacred event in sporting Americana: That this year’s NCAA tournament, beyond the history-seekers at Gonzaga and two glimmers from Los Angeles, hasn’t been easy on the eyes?
Heavens to Naismith, thank goodness for the Zags, creating artwork amid the cat scratches and ambling toward the first perfect championship season in 45 years. If they arrived in Indianapolis as chalk favorites, now it would be shocking if anyone gave them a game. “We’re not hung up on the undefeated thing at all,” said coach Mark Few, in the Elite Eight without a visible sweat bead. “As you get farther and farther along, the pressure comes from a lot of places. I think the biggest place it comes from is, you don’t want it to end. I bet if you asked them, they wish they could play 25 more games together. So you just don’t want it to end.”
It should end predictably, with a large trophy in their grasp, because the competition generally is inferior. Guess which team made only 3 of 19 three-point tries and wouldn’t have survived the Sweet 16 if the coach didn’t order his clankers to drive headlong to the hole? That would be Baylor, a supposed contender, whose best player was invisible offensively. Maybe it’s because Jared Butler had no appreciation for the moment. Asked what the movie “Hoosiers” meant to him after playing inside venerable Hinkle Fieldhouse, where the concluding scenes were filmed, Butler killed the retro buzz, saying coldly, “I haven’t seen all of `Hoosiers.’ I’ve seen maybe, like, 20 minutes of it. It wasn’t that interesting at first, so that’s why I didn’t finish it.”
The barn was good enough for John Wooden, Oscar Robertson and Jimmy Chitwood, but not for Jared Butler. Apparently, the ghosts took note.
Alabama made the shot of the tournament, sparking end-to-end memories of Christian Laettner and Tate George when Alex Reese drained a three-point buzzer beater to force overtime. “WOW!!!!!!” tweeted LeBron James, whose injured ankle suddenly didn’t hurt as much. The Crimson Tide followed by missing its next five shots and losing to UCLA, which is joined by crosstown L.A. rival USC in the Elite Eight for the first time EV-ERRR, as a Gen-Zer on either campus would put it.
“We knew that we had nothing to worry about it,” UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez said of Reese’s turnaround 28-footer. “This is March. It happens all the time.”
Then there was Arkansas, which made a Pig Sooey mess in reaching the Elite Eight by hitting just 29 of 77 shots from the field, 1 of 9 from beyond the arc. And Houston, which missed 19 of 26 treys before finally burying Buddy Boeheim and a Syracuse team that scored 20 points in the first half and shot 28 percent. Oregon State might be the college version of “Hoosiers” — would Hollywood dare make “Beavers” with a straight face? — after sneaking into the brackets as a 12th seed, then becoming the first team in 36 years to win three straight games as an underdog of six points or more. The story keeps getting cooler, with coach Wayne Tinkle relating how he took advice from a stranger he keeps running into during morning walks through the Convention Center labyrinth.
“Coach, do you know what the enemy of great is?” a man named Tim Allen, not the actor, asked Tinkle. “It’s not bad — it’s good enough. Good enough is the enemy of great. Challenge your guys not to be good enough, but continue to be great.”
Tinkle, a basketball lifer whose wife and three children also have played on the Division I level, decided to use the suggestion during his pre-game speech. Considering Oregon State was voted last in the Pac-12 Conference preseason poll, why not keep embracing the crazy? “It’s our time. Dare to be great,” he told his players.
Still, was the subsequent victory over Loyola-Chicago more a byproduct of the Ramblers missing 18 of 23 three-pointers — bricks that not even Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt could pray toward makeability? “We just couldn’t find it,” said Cameron Krutwig, referring to the basket.
Maybe Michigan, a possible Final Four opponent for Gonzaga, has the right idea in pounding the ball down low, successful against Florida State with 7-1 Hunter Dickinson and 6-9 Franz Wagner. And next comes USC — what is this, the Rose Bowl? — riding the Mobley brothers — 7-foot lottery pick Evan and 6-10 Isaiah — and guards who actually can make threes. Do I honestly think any of them, or anyone else, can beat Gonzaga? No, as I’ve said all season.
I’ve always loved the tournament for its joy, its youth, its fun, its refreshing story lines. But what’s happening here, amid the Misfires of March, isn’t merely a quirk of a pandemic year. College basketball is facing an existential crisis that won’t end well. You’d think the evolution of the sport — an unprecedented flurry of talented players coming out of high school — would be good for the college game. In fact, it’s backfiring.
The very best teenagers, such as LaMelo Ball and James Wiseman, no longer need even a year of the tournament. They just circumvented college ball and found their way to the NBA, which will become the norm when the league waives the one-and-done rule and allows players to enter the league directly from high school. Those who aren’t ready can prepare in the NBA’s G League, where players prefer to be compensated in a holding pattern rather than go unpaid while making fortunes for universities. This only serves to dilute the quality of college play — and render traditional bluebloods Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, Michigan State, Louisville, etc., as ordinary programs that either didn’t make the tournament or were bounced early.
You might not like John Calipari, Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams and Bill Self. But it isn’t good for college basketball when they’re at home while, bless them, Oregon State and Arkansas are playing for Final Four berths. And when the Pac-12 is 12-2 in the tournament, with three teams in the final eight. Those of us who live on the West Coast love the new tilt our way, with Gonzaga the heaviest, but face it: College basketball needs to thrive in the East, Midwest and South, not after midnight on ESPN.
One player who detoured to the G League, guard Daishen Nix, opted out of his UCLA letter of intent to take a reported $300,000. This prompted coach Mick Cronin, who nonetheless has steered the Bruins from the First Four to the Elite Eight, to slam the NBA for poaching teenagers. “All I would say is, let’s not act like we’re all on the same team,” Cronin said. “College basketball has been a free farm system for 40 years for the NBA, and it is and will always be the best place for a young player to develop. The experience is second to none and I believe it’s the best basketball development that somebody’s going to get. That’s just my belief; it doesn’t mean that I’m right. I’m well aware that in midtown Manhattan (in the NBA office), they’re not real concerned with my opinion and that’s OK. … I don’t think Adam Silver is concerned; he works for 30 owners and they’re all capitalists, as they should be.” Later, on Dan Patrick’s radio program, Cronin pumped up the volume, accusing the NBA of “two-faced lies and acting like we didn’t recruit the kid.”
It didn’t stop Cronin from making an NBA analogy, with Michigan waiting in the next round. “Somebody said, ‘Well, now you’ve been to an Elite Eight.’ That’s not why I came to UCLA,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of friends in the NBA, they make fun of people that have rings that say conference champion. There’s only one. Whoever wins the NBA title is the world champion. So for me, we’ve got to win three more games.”
Soon enough, the idea of Zion Williamson spending a year in college will be a distant memory. And the five-star players who do want the NCAA experience, if only for a year, might not be so quick to choose a blueblood anymore. Twenty years ago, remember, Gonzaga was a “mid-major Cinderella.” Might the likes of Creighton and Loyola take the quantum leap next? These days, Few can snap his fingers in Spokane for five-star talents — such as star guard Jalen Suggs or incoming sensation Hunter Sallis, who chose Gonzaga over Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas, Oregon and UCLA. The nation’s No. 1 prep prospect, Chet Holmgren, also is expected to sign with the Zags, in part because Suggs was his high school teammate. In two years, though, players on their level won’t bother with college choices. They’ll be NBA-bound.
Which explains why the games are ragged and many of the teams can’t shoot. I am not the only one who thinks the best showdown thus far involved no testicles. Two phenomenal teens, Connecticut’s Paige Bueckers and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, converged in a women’s matchup that interested me more than anything I’ve observed in Indiana. It only magnified the shame piled on NCAA president Mark Emmert, who should have been fired years ago and now faces an almost certain dismissal after lopsided inequities were exposed at the men’s and women’s tournaments. When the women’s weight facilities in San Antonio were found to be worse than those at a two-bit apartment complex, Emmert said, “We dropped the ball.”
Seems he can’t shoot straight, either.
By no coincidence, Gonzaga hit 59.6 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from three range in a rout of Creighton. Even on a below-par day for Suggs, the dominant rhythms were unaffected. “We play best when we’re moving the ball because we have so many pieces and so much versatility,” point guard Andrew Nembhard said. “It’s just like playing in a park with a bunch of guys that click so well.”
That easy, huh? It’s why the Zags are three victories from a season of perfection not seen since the Indiana Hoosiers in 1976. “These guys,” said Creighton coach Greg McDermott, “are on a mission.”
While too many others are just missing.