College basketball has never been so popular and March Madness has never been a bigger deal. It generates more money in a single month than many professional sports can. But the basketball is terrible and the games are becoming unwatchable. What the hell happened?
In 1985, the 32 team bracket was expanded to 64 teams. The popularity of the sport was exacerbated by an incredible few years of champions. In 1981, a young Isiah Thomas brought the Hoosiers to the finals for the win. The very next year it was Michael Jordan and James Worthy’s North Carolina Tarheels. In 1983, the North Carolina State Wolfpack was the unlikely winner. It created beautiful drama and wonderful television that made audiences fall in love.
Jim Valvano would have been 71 today. It’s fitting that he was born in March.
— NC State Alumni (@NCStateAlumni) March 10, 2017
The NCAA and television companies decided to cash in and the tournament was expanded. Nothing truly noticeable happened for a few years. It crept in slow, masquerading itself as parity and popularity. Then the last great team was here and gone in 1992 with the Duke Blue Devils. After that, it has been a gentle slope downward.
It culminated in 2011 when Connecticut topped Butler in a 53-41 barn burner. Neither team could throw the ball into the ocean if they were standing on a dock. People blamed the college students, blamed the coaches, blamed the pressure that the kids feel; they blamed anybody they could think of except for the actual tournament itself.
People like the tournament because they like to gamble at work. Placing the blame on the NCAA Tournament for unwatchable basketball would be unheard of. It would prove that something people like is fallible, and nobody likes that, and people don’t watch it for the basketball anyway, they just watch it to gamble. It’s just for fun. But there is a bigger issue at stake here.
When the NCAA expanded the tournament it was to line their pockets. In turn, it also lined the pockets of the schools with money from TV viewership. Expansion created exposure for smaller schools like Xavier, Gonzaga, and Butler. It enticed athletes to take their talents there instead of the most popular schools like Duke, North Carolina, and UCLA. Talent across the nation became spread thin, creating the occasional underdog team that can rise to the top, but for the most part developing mediocre play masquerading as parity.
The last great NCAA team was that early 1990s Duke Team that repeated championships. It boasted Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley, Christian Laettner, and Cherokee Parks. All four men had careers in the NBA. Since then, some of the top talents that have gone on to make a splash at the professional level haven’t made to the elite eight much less won a championship. We all remember Laettner’s shot. But it wasn’t even in the finals, it was in the East Regional. Nobody even remembers that.
2017’s Championship game showcased almost 20 total turnovers and over 50 foul shots. North Carolina was 4 for 27 from beyond the arc. There were miscues, missed passes, and missteps all over the court. A few players from North Carolina and Gonzaga will make the NBA, but the chances of any of them having an impact, or even making it on a roster for longer than 5 years is slim. Neither team possessed any elite talent.
But the NCAA isn’t used for development anymore. It’s used for exposure. The elite talents don’t need to make a Final Four. They need a place to play basketball. It’s high school’s thirteenth grade. This is usually where the claim is made that the NBA has ruined college basketball with the “One and Done” rule. But all the NBA rule says is that you have to be 19 to be drafted. It doesn’t say you have to go to college. Ask Emmanuel Mudiay.
Elite talents went to the elite schools and had at least a year or two of development before being drafted. They needed the exposure just as much as the development. The place you received the most exposure was the places that were on TV the most; Duke, North Carolina, and UCLA. But as the tournament became a money grab and exposure to the smaller schools intensified, talent didn’t have to travel as far or to just a few select schools. The best teams weren’t able to stack three or four future NBA superstars on the same team.
— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) April 3, 2017
The NBA doesn’t want to leave superstars in college any longer than they have to. They want to develop them their way. They no longer want them to be under a Roy Williams for two or three years. They want them to be under their next best player, to learn from the veterans of the professional league.
More and more players may start running overseas before they enter the draft in order to gain the exposure they are looking for. They do not receive any cash for playing here, even for winning here, and as the NBA global market broadens, it might be just as beneficial for talent to play overseas while earning a paycheck before they enter the NBA Draft.
The players that stay here will not be as impactful immediately to their college teams as a Kemba Walker. But it will naturally weed out the “One and Done” rule as the players who need more time to develop stick around to do so. All the “One and Done’s” will be playing elsewhere. March Madness will become March Blandness.
College basketball fandom was largely based on geographic location. You now see fans of North Carolina on the West Coast UCLA fans on the East Coast. If the billions of dollars generated never filters to the players, will more and more players turn nineteen overseas before entering the draft? Will college jerseys be replaced by foreign league jerseys?
Roy Williams and North Carolina have been under recent scrutiny for eligibility rules during an academic probe by the NCAA. Turns out, student athletes take a lot of phony classes for phony grades. Not just at North Carolina but plenty of other schools, too. They don’t go to school to learn, they go to play, they go to get noticed by the pros. They aren’t playing for their education, especially the best players who are guaranteed to go on to the pros. Most of those kids won’t be in class from now until the end of the year.
Roy Williams received a bonus of almost one million dollars for winning the championship while the students got hats and t-shirts. I’m guessing the European leagues, South American Leagues, and Chinese Leagues pay better than that. Who knows, maybe the American Basketball Association and the Professional Basketball League gain enough traction to pay more money.
March Madness isn’t the epitome of college basketball; it’s the epitome of greed.