Friday, May 1, 2009

The NCAA Basketball Playoffs

Well it's over for another year. The NCAA Men's Basketball Playoffs. The catch phrases; March Madness, Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, and Final Four are out of the sports headlines for ten or eleven months. The NCAA Men's basketball playoffs is one of the most popular sports events of the year, but there is trouble brewing on the horizon. Most years it's not as easy to predict the winner as it was this year. But even a casual fan knows which teams will probably make it to the sweet sixteen, and even the final four. As Steve Kelley for the Seattle Times wrote several weeks ago, "The guest list for the final four is shrinking."

The Univ. of North Carolina, Univ. of Connecticut, and Michigan State have a combined 28 final four appearances and eight national titles. UCLA has eleven titles. Many teams have a chance of making the NCAA playoffs, but only a handful have a chance of making the final four. The last four winners were Kansas, Florida (twice), North Carolina, and Connecticut. Kentucky and Indiana were out of the running this year, but they'll be back. Every now and then an upstart will crash the final four party like George Mason did in 2006, but those surprises will be less frequent. A few other teams like Texas, Oklahoma, Duke, and occasionally a Maryland and a Louisville are invited to the final four. You might be able to add a few more, but that's about it. As the participants in the final four become more predictable, interest in the playoffs will diminish.

How do we solve this problem? Should the women's playoffs compete more vigorously with the men for attention? That would be great. What about term limits for coaches with the most wins? Probably won't happen. One reason for the problem is the choices made by the athletes. For example, let's look at the North Carolina star, Tyler Hansborough, who lead his team to the final four two consecutive years. There is no doubt that Hansborough is one of the finest college basketball players in the country. There is also no doubt that he will be a top draft pick and get a contract right out of college that will make him a multi-millionaire. So why did Hansborough, who is from Missouri, select North Carolina for his college. I don't know Mr. Hansborough personally, but I suspect he did not pick North Carolina because of the number of volumes in their library, or the number of Nobel prize winners on the faculty. He probably selected North Carolina because of the strength of their college basketball program and its history of having consistently winning coaches and teams. And that's just where the problem is.

North Carolina would have had a winning team and possibly even made it to the final four if Hansborough had gone to a different school. The coaches would have filled that position with another player perhaps not quite as good as Hansborough, but almost. However if Hansborough had chosen to go to a school that did not have a strong tradition of winning Division One basketball games, he could have made a much greater difference in the life, history, and reputation of that college than he ever could do at the Univ. of North Carolina. Other players have done that. Bob Lanier with St. Bonaventure and Ernie DiGrigorio with Providence both in the 1970s, to name just two. The basketball histories of St. Bonaventure and Providence will never be separated from those two star players who placed them on the headlines of sports pages for a few years, but the history of Hansborough at North Carolina will be much more obscure, as it mixes in the shuffle of numerous other excellent players and winning championships teams over the years. Why does an outstanding player choose to go to a school that will have a winning team, possibly a championship team, even if he chooses to go somewhere else, when he could make a much bigger difference by selecting a college that does not have a winning record, and turning it into a winner. Of course there is a greater risk in choosing a college without a strong basketball tradition. He might get injured, not play very much, and not be noticed by the pros when it becomes draft time. The team might still be a losing team, even with him on it. But that's still a much more courageous choice. If these high school players are really as great as predicted, that would be one way to prove it. It would be good to see great high school players showing some guts when they select a college to attend, instead of making the wimpy choice of attending a school that will be a winner with or without them on the team.

Leonard Nolt

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