The last rounds of this year's NCAA tournament feature all marquee teams and no scrappy underdogs.
Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), and Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic) talk about the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
I was wrong. In our previous roundtable discussion regarding whom should be college basketball's player of the year, I nominated Creighton's sharp-shooting forward Doug McDermott—not only a great player in his own right, but also a poster boy for the rise of Butler, Gonzaga and other mid-major programs, the egalitarian, Occupy the Brackets wave I felt had come to characterize campus hoops:
Unlike college football and the rest of American society, college hoops is moving away from stratification and toward greater equality. The gap between the blueblood and big-conference haves—such as, ahem, Kansas and Kentucky—and the traditional have-nots seemingly shrinks every year.
Did McDermott arguably have a better year than former high school teammate, ballyhooed North Carolina super recruit, and would-be brand incarnate Harrison Barnes? Probably. But still: This year's Final Four is all about the haves. The one percent. Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville, Ohio State. Not a scrappy underdog among them. As a power-to-the-people agitator, this makes me sad.
As a basketball fan, I'm pretty excited.
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Come the Final Four, I don't want to see the hottest team in the country (see UConn, 2011). Nor do I want to watch the luckiest (see Butler, same year). I want to enjoy the best. In terms of overall talent, Kentucky is inarguably the nation's top squad—shot-swatting superfrosh Anthony Davis will be the no-brainer No. 1 selection in the NBA Draft, and at least five of his teammates will almost certainly collect professional checks. Better still, the Wildcats' semifinal matchup with Louisville features a pair of delicious subplots: intrastate armageddon in the nation's most college basketball-crazy state (sorry, Indiana) and a no-love-lost coaching rivalry between Rick Pitino and John Calipari, with the victor sure to publish a winning-the-games-of-business-and-life 7-step success manual within the next three months.
That said, the Kansas-Ohio State game is hardly an undercard afterthought. Between the Buckeyes' bullish Jared Sullinger and the Jayhawks' indomitable Thomas Robinson, viewers will experience a double dose of an increasingly endangered college basketball species: the honest-to-goodness, back-to-the-basket, hossin' and bossin' post player. Big men who actually play, well, big. In an era of 6-10 power forwards who want to be shooting guards and don't know a sweet drop step from a crafty up-and-under, I find that refreshing, a throwback style of play that never feels dated.
Speaking of feeling dated: there's only one thing that bugs me about this year's madness. The points. Where are they? As longtime college basketball writer Greg Hansen recently noted, winning teams in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament 15 years ago averaged 76.7 points per game. Ten years ago, they averaged 81.4 ppg. But this year? A paltry 65.9. Last season's utterly unwatchable UConn-Butler contest felt like an unsightly aberration—yet given what seems to be a long-term trend toward slow-it-down, grind-it-out, mid-1990s NHL-style play (what is Wisconsin's Bo Ryan but the Jacques Lemaire of college hoops?), it may actually have been the new normal. To which I say: gack.
Of course, I grew up on fast-breakin' Pac-10 games, the product of a conference and a play style that currently seem as relevant as 1-800-COLLECT. So what do I know? Hampton, what are your thoughts on this year's Final Four?