In “Defense” of College Basketball
In the aftermath of Monday night’s NCAA title game, it became the fashionable stance to decry the current state of college basketball. From the reaction of the media, you’d have thought that UConn’s 53-41 victory over Butler signaled the end of Western civilization.
I’m probably sensitive to that notion as a Wisconsin fan because I’ve been hearing it ever since coach Dick Bennett took the Badgers to the Final Four back in 2000. Coincidentally, like Wisconsin that year, Butler was also an 8 seed and Monday night’s final score was identical to the Badgers’ semifinal loss to Michigan State. It also evoked a similar reaction to that game of 11 years ago.
I’m not suggesting that either game was a thing of beauty, at least in the sense of how such things are traditionally judged. But a contest doesn’t necessarily have to be aesthetically pleasing to be compelling. When I sit down to watch any sporting event in which I don’t have a direct rooting interest, I’m looking for a close, hard fought game more than style points. By that measure, last Monday night’s game certainly was entertaining. It makes me wonder whether the game would be perceived the same way if both teams had shot just a little bit better.
There were a number of factors that contributed to the poor shooting in the game. The NCAA’s insistence on holding a basketball game in a football venue can’t be conducive to a good shooting background. Part of it may have been big game jitters from a couple of teams that weren’t expected to make it that far. Other than maybe UConn’s Kemba Walker, there weren’t any players on the floor that are going to have an impact at the next level. But, most importantly, both teams played outstanding defense. It would be one thing if the teams were missing shots in a fast-paced, full court game but there weren’t many uncontested shots inside the 3 point arc.
There’s an interesting dichotomy at play in the NCAA tournament. We expect the championship game to reflect the best of college basketball but, as I noted last week, the “one & done” format of the tournament doesn’t always result in the two best teams playing for the trophy. That point was underscored this week when Northern Arizona’s Mike Adras voted for Ohio State and Kansas as the top 2 teams in the final ESPN/USA today coach’s poll ( http://tinyurl.com/3zwncmk ). Why they even conduct a poll after the tournament is beyond me but Adras’ ballot supports the position that the last two teams to play aren’t automatically the best ones.
It’s a quintessentially American thing to pull for the underdog; maybe that goes back to the roots of the U.S. as the original underdog. But to expect the underdog to compete at a high level isn’t always realistic. From my reading of history, the American revolution wasn’t the prettiest affair, either.
The point is that college basketball has become the ultimate team game. The best players often leave early for the pros and most coaches have figured out that the way to remain competitive is to play good defense. Many of the people who complain about the lack of talent in the college game are the same ones who criticize the graduation rates of programs that rely on players who have no desire to be in college in the first place. For my money, the college game is infinitely more interesting than the pro variety, where there is a preponderance of isolation and pick & roll game and defense is played sporadically, if at all.