After one of the most exciting first weekends in NCAA men’s basketball tournament history, it’s time to revisit Michael Wilbon’s question: The tournament is good, but is it compelling?
To review, the second and third rounds featured 17 games decided by five points or less, including Saturday’s Butler-Pittsburgh game, which surely will be remembered as long as college basketball is played.
The nation’s TV viewers voted with their channel-changers. The ratings for the first full day of the tournament were the highest in two decades, and the ratings through Saturday were up 11 percent over last year. March Madness on Demand was up 47 percent in total visits.
Which brings us back to Michael Wilbon.
The ESPN personality last week predicted that the tournament would achieve drama but that it wouldn’t fulfill its promise because, more or less, the players aren’t as good as in the past.
“I’m not expecting the game to look like it did in the 1980s and early 1990s when the really good teams like Michael Jordan’s Tar Heels, Patrick Ewing’s Hoyas, Chris Mullin’s Redmen, Christian Laettner’s Blue Devils and Tark’s Runnin’ Rebels had multiple All-Americans, multiple player-of-the-year candidates, juniors and seniors and — get this — redshirt players who stuck around for four, maybe even five years … long enough to actually learn how to play the game.
“Exciting is good, good and exciting is compelling. And right now it looks like this NCAA tournament, even at its best, will have to settle for the former.”
To buttress his argument, he brought in The Great Grinch, Jay Bilas, who said: “The competition still is going to be great. But the quality of play is not what it has been. We’ve still got outstanding players; we don’t have the tremendous superstars that are older that we used to have.”
Would it be good for athletes to stay for four years? Sure. Is it possible to restrict their professional ambitions? No. So what’s the point in the discussion?
The NCAA, as usual, can’t win. If you listen to the Drake Group, college sports is nothing but a minor league for the pros. If you listen to Michael Wilbon and Jay Bilas, the NCAA fails in basketball because it’s not a minor league for the pros.
My head spins.
Usually at times like this, women’s basketball provides the needed stabilization. But along comes Christine Brennan of USA Today, banging away at the NCAA for not supporting the Division I Women’s Basketball Championship.
Brennan’s smoking gun appears to be the lack of an NCAA bracket contest for the women.
“March Madness is about basketball, of course, but to many it’s really about the brackets,” she wrote. “Quite a few top websites offer a men’s bracket contest, encouraging interactive participation. But the women? It’s few and far between. USA Today doesn’t have one. Nor does the NCAA, which tells us everything we need to know about how it views its two tournaments.”
Of all things that the NCAA can be criticized for, the failure to support women’s sports would be way down the list. Male-female participation for NCAA championships is about 50-50 male-female, which is decidedly more equitable than the front page of USA Today on almost any day of the year. If she wants to fix the uneven promotion of women’s sports, she needs to do a lot more corner work on her own editors.