Posted Mar 20 2012 11:24AM
Certain entertainment mysteries just defy logic. Oprah Winfrey, and God bless her, became a billionaire by sitting on her rump and talking to someone. Record TV audiences want to see what lucky guy a Kardashian is dating and manipulating.
And the country goes mad every March over college basketball.
Look, there's nothing wrong with loving the sport and catching the chance of an upset and rooting for your alma mater. Those are all good reasons to veer temporarily from the NBA for a different kind of basketball fix. The players hustle with unfettered emotion, most of them realizing that their final college game very well could be the last game of their lives. So they wear floor burns as proudly as NBA players wear tattoos.
But that's about the extent of the appeal, because purely from a quality standpoint, the annual coronation of college basketball cannot compare, in any way, to the NBA.
Remember that the next time you hear how the college postseason trumps the NBA postseason. In that sense, the tournament is vastly overstated and the hysteria mostly manufactured. Otherwise, the bands are a nice touch.
Let's get to the root of the NCAA tourney's popularity: gambling. That's right. It's less a sporting event than a 94-foot craps table. It's legalized gambling on a massive scale, which involves even the President. Anyone who knows how to spell will fill out a bracket for fun or profit. The tourney is followed closely and passionately because a $5 bracket might win you $500 in the office pool.
And then there's the honor of rooting for your school to beat your buddy's school, or even better, your boss' school. That's also part of the fun. It gives you chest-thumping rights for a day, or maybe until the next weekend, but never for three straight weekends unless you went to Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, UConn, Kansas or Michigan State, the only schools almost guaranteed to make the Final Four every year.
As for the games themselves, they're often suspenseful, some even decided at the buzzer, with college announcers hyping the hysteria by straining their vocal cords. But there's a decent share of stinkers, too, or close games that are poorly contested by both teams. Remember, college basketball is mostly players trying to pass exams, like any college student, and a good many wind up with C-pluses.
Take last year's title game. Everyone went crazy over the Butler Bulldogs, Cinderellas in sneakers, reaching the title game for the second straight year, the same extreme odds as LeBron James taking the final shot when it counts. And then the game began, and Butler made history all right -- as in historically awful, shooting 18 percent and putting us to sleep.
The best player in that game was Kemba Walker, who carried UConn all season, which was a lot easier than carrying the Bobcats, as he's discovering.
"That's the toughest thing for me, dealing with this," he said. "I didn't lose this many times in college. Here, every player is good."
In a sense, the smell of NBA money helped kill the tourney. The college game was best when the top players had no choice but to stick around three, sometimes four years. That meant a better game, played by more seniors with sharper skills and basketball IQs. Let's just say times have changed. That's putting it mildly. You know what basketball record will never be broken? Somebody winning college basketball's player of the year award three times. That's what Ralph Sampson did. Well. Wilt's 100-point game will go first.
No great player will stay long enough to win the award two straight years, let alone three. Not in the one-and-done era. Unless he's related to Oprah.
Anyway, unlike the college game, there are no 5-foot-8 future accountants trying to run through screens in the NBA. The players are bigger, stronger, faster and amazingly skilled. Good luck trying to find someone in college who can fill up a box score the way LeBron can, or a 6-foot-10 forward with Kevin Durant's range, or someone with Derrick Rose's quickness and burst.
And the most refreshing difference is NBA coaches, for the most part, don't try to inject themselves into every play and possession. College coaches must get paid by the timeout, especially the last few minutes, which sometimes stretches 30 minutes. These control freaks just don't trust their players' instincts and intuition in a close game, as they do in the NBA, which is understandable because they're dealing with 19 and 20 year olds. They're still learning how to play, how to win. And yet, any drama in the stretch run is killed when the coaches interfere and the game stops being about basketball and turns into a foul-and-free-throw shooting contest instead.
None of this matters, because the country will enjoy this three-week slice of basketball heaven, motivated more by their brackets than anything else, waiting to see who'll make the video montage for "One Shining Moment." What's lost in the translation is most of the players, the lucky ones anyway, can't wait to leave the college game behind. Even they know where the best basketball can be found.
Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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