The logo for Pac-10 Tournament sponsor Pacific Life is a whale breaching and flopping, which unwittingly characterizes the league’s overall basketball quality this season. Fox Sports has the dubious honor of televising the four-day, nine-game playoff, showcasing a conference that charitably features a few adequate teams, and several fair to bad ones.
Granted, living in Los Angeles I see more West Coast basketball than much of the country, but nothing I’ve watched in the Pac-10 or elsewhere has changed my mind about a disheartening fact: Thanks primarily to the “one-and-done” rule allowing players to jump to the pros after their freshman year, the skill level of NCAA basketball has been depleted. Too many games are low-scoring, walk-the-ball-up-the-court affairs, with poor shooting and a painful shortage of top-tier big men.
And yet, despite all that, mediocre play won’t do a thing to dissuade people from living and dying with (and betting on) every round of the NCAA Tournament. Indeed, the mantra for this year — with the Turner Networks joining CBS as its TV partner — is more teams (an expansion to 68), more games (thanks to cable, every early contest will be televised, at staggered intervals) and more 52-49 barnburners.
March Madness has become a formula for basketball badness — not that you’d know it from listening to most announcers, who can make a 25-24 halftime score (coincidentally, the tally of last week’s UCLA-Washington contest on ESPN2) sound like a nail-biting defensive struggle for the ages.
Actually, Washington shot 21 percent in the first half and 36 percent for the game and still won, pretty easily, against the Bruins, in a showdown of the Pac 10’s second- and third-place finishers.
Watch enough NCAA hoops, and you’ll notice a shocking number of Division I kids can’t hit a mid-range jumper and shoot terribly from the free-throw line, but they’re ready with a flashy breakaway dunk, hoping to achieve “plays of the day” recognition on “SportsCenter.”
Coaches, meanwhile, have grown adept at keeping games close by employing a deliberate, clock-milking style — especially in the tournament — that can neutralize physical and talent advantages. The result: final scores approximating temperatures on an early spring day in New Jersey (think low to mid-50s), or the halftime score for an up-tempo NBA game.
So what keeps the tournament interesting? Beyond its sudden-death, lose-and-go-home elimination format, it’s a terrific excuse to gamble — and feel smug when your 14th-seeded long shot upsets a No. 3 in the opening round. There’s also enough parity now that teams from schools with funny names can challenge and upset traditional powers, adding to the perceived excitement.
Last year’s championship, where Duke held off scrappy Butler 61-59, is a classic example, a tough but not particularly scintillating game in terms of on-court aesthetics, made more interesting by the David vs. Goliath storyline.
Meanwhile, former players turned color analysts — many of whom were top-notch stars in their day — pretend the mediocre basketball is the second coming of Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird. With that in mind, pity the poor souls tasked with exhaustively covering some of these pre-tourney conference playoffs.
Frankly, everyone should be grateful cooler heads prevailed and the NCAA didn’t expand to an “Even the ugly stepsisters get invited to the dance” 96-team tournament field, which was seriously discussed.
In a way, since adopting the one-and-done rule six years ago, college basketball has become everything college football and its indecisive Bowl Championship Series isn’t. The regular season can be a bit messy (just try watching games in which you have no rooting interest before Valentine’s Day), but the playoff format is a structural masterpiece — obscuring how fundamentals are often an afterthought, and how the truly talented players quickly abscond to the NBA.
As a consequence, the NCAA tourney remains a marquee event, even while college hoops becomes the equivalent of a spaghetti western: Some good, some bad, and a whole lot of ugly.