Now that Temple and Villanova have been removed from the NC2A tournament, and most people’s brackets resemble Charlie Sheen’s personal life, it’s time to turn our attention away from local glory and personal gain. There is still a champion to be chosen, but even more compelling is the charge of non-BCS conference schools into the Sweet 16 like a right cross to the corporate basketball jaw.
On Selection Sunday, we were treated to made-for-TV outrage by the likes of Jay Bilas, who blasted the tourney committee for having the temerity to include a third Colonial Athletic Association team at the expense of “more qualified” schools like Alabama and Virginia Tech. Bilas, who almost always takes up the big-school banner, was particularly colorful in his criticism of the 10 people who assembled the round of 68. He wondered whether they knew “the ball was round.” He said Harvard and St. Mary’s should have been in the tournament before VCU and Alabama-Birmingham. He said, “I think we need more basketball people on the committee.” And then Dick Vitale, that bastion of reason and analysis, declared that college basketball needs a commissioner, and it should be Bilas.
By late last Tuesday night, Bilas looked like he knew his stuff. UAB was trounced by Clemson, 70-52, in a play-in game, and didn’t look like it belonged on the court with the middling ACC team. But then came the weekend, and mid-majors started to throw some body punches to the loud and arrogant. VCU led the way, knocking off USC, Georgetown and Purdue in the span of five days, a feat few big boys could have accomplished. A day before the Rams bumped off Purdue, Butler dumped top-seeded Pittsburgh to advance to the tourney’s second weekend. Richmond sauntered into the Sweet 16, too. So did San Diego State and BYU, Mountain West teams many (full disclosure: I thought Temple would beat SDSU) considered a notch below the bigger names.
What Bilas and his kind don’t understand -– or don’t want to admit -– is that college basketball is no longer the top-flight sport it was even 10 years ago. It may still provide some thrilling moments in March, but the overall quality of play has dropped considerably. A variety of reasons can be cited, including the yearly exodus of top underclassmen to the NBA, a continued decaying of fundamentals at the high school level (thanks, AAU ball!) that forces coaches to use strategies that feature athleticism, rather than skill, and a moving away from team-first attitudes among better players aching to be playing professionally. As a result, it’s no longer wise to consider the name brands superior to everyone else. Purdue may have a great tradition that includes all-Americas like John Wooden, Rick Mount and Glenn Robinson, but none of those suited up for the Boilers Sunday, when they had their teeth knocked out by VCU, 94-76.
The problem with Bilas and his ilk is that their opinions are colored by their affiliations. As a front-line ESPN analyst, Bilas sees the big schools exclusively and is therefore influenced by their performances and the conversations he has with people in that circle. Further, since his network rarely gives big-time attention to conferences like the CAA, save a two-hour window it opens during “Championship Week,” it doesn’t behoove Bilas to talk up the mid-major crowd, since schools in that world don’t sign his paycheck. In the world of TV sports, where self-promotion is everything, it doesn’t make sense to denigrate your own product at the expense of lifting up a competitor.
Let’s not forget something else: Bilas played at Duke, so his ACC allegiance will be strong. And since he is an “analyst” and not a “journalist” (ESPN is trying to figure out the difference as we speak), Bilas doesn’t have to be completely objective. Of course he will be outraged when Virginia Tech doesn’t make the tournament. The Hokies are ACC members who defeated his beloved Blue Devils on a Saturday night made-for-ESPN broadcast. That should be enough to get any team an invitation to the Dance, right?
SI.com’s Stewart Mandel had a great line about ESPN’s relationship with the NC2A tournament. He wrote, “This has become like the NFL Draft. McShay/Lunardi tell us it will be so, then everyone gets mad when the actual decision-makers differ.” In other words, we are expected to believe everything ESPN tells us, and if things don’t go the way they predict, the others must be wrong. “Bracketologist” Joe Lunardi does a great job breaking down the tourney, and he is usually about 97 percent correct, but just because the Selection Committee differs from him or from Bilas, or blowhards like Vitale and Digger Phelps, doesn’t mean its members don’t know basketball.
Five of the Sweet 16 teams are from non-BCS conferences. The mighty Big East, which received a record 11 bids, has just two teams -– Marquette and Connecticut -– remaining. (Maybe the Selection Committee is stupid, after all.) Although favorites Kansas, Ohio State and Duke remain, there is great potential for upset in the next two rounds. Best of all, the VCU Rams are still playing, in nose-thumbing defiance of Those Who Know Better. Enjoy the rest of the tournament, and remember that bargains can often be found when you look past the name brands.
* Luis Castillo’s fielding range is gone, and his legs are shot. It’s not clear he even qualifies as a “stopgap” at second base. If Chase Utley is really going to miss the season, the Phils have to do better than a washed-up 35-year old. Michael Young can be had for half-price. Pull the trigger, Ruben.
* It’s fun to watch the Sixers’ energy when they are in full gallop, but they must match the toughness of teams that go at them hard inside. If they can’t flex some muscle, their playoff stay will be short indeed.
* Any Villanova fan calling for Jay Wright’s ouster had better pipe down. Try to remember where the program was when he took over and what it has become. Final Four appearances and Sweet 16 spots aren’t guaranteed, so get a little perspective and appreciate what you have.