Through Tumult and Change, the NCAA Tournament Remains Magic

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Disappointment resonated in the tone with which Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton spoke to the small gathering of reporters around him outside of the Seminoles locker room in Los Angeles’ Staples Center. His team came one game, four points, shy of reaching college basketball’s Promised Land, the Final Four.

And yet, despite the disappointment, Hamilton ended his interview session on a positive note.

“They have a lot to be proud of. No one expected us to be where we were,” he said following his team’s 58-54 loss to Michigan in the West Regional final. “You’re never pleased when you lose a game…[But] we very well could have won the game and been on our way to San Antonio. That’s one of the things that’s good about the NCAA Tournament. It’s the greatest sporting event, I think, in the world.”

Leonard Hamilton isn’t alone in his view. Every March, millions from around America take days off from work, tune in and binge on college basketball — a sport that for the other four months of its season broadcasts largely to die-hards.

The NCAA Tournament has a certain mystique that engrosses even the most casual of fans; and that can make lifelong devotees. Among my earliest sports memories is watching Loyola Marymount’s surprise run to the Elite Eight after the tragic death of Hank Gathers in 1990. As I got older, no sporting event meant as much to me.

Memories burned into my mind’s eye forever include Princeton back-cutting its way past defending national champion UCLA; Harold “The Show” Arceneaux; Al McGuire’s call of “holy mackerel!”

At this year’s West Regional, Michigan equipment manager-turned-scout team walk-on-turned March Madness highlight contributor C.J. Baird described his 3-pointer in a Sweet 16 rout of Texas A&M as “every kid’s dream.” And, indeed, the very essence of the Tournament is similar to how I’ve heard people describe visiting Disney World: When you’re there, it feels like dreams come true.

I love college football — college football and basketball aren’t just the two sports I cover professionally, but are also the two I most enjoy following. As entertaining as the College Football Playoff has been, producing at least one excellent game each season, the gridiron’s postseason can’t compare to the NCAA Tournament. Football’s equivalent to Loyola-Chicago is purposefully denied an opportunity to chase after the championship. 

We’re left only to argue what might happen if Alabama and UCF were to play. Conventional wisdom suggests the Crimson Tide would roll…but conventional wisdom also says a No. 16 seed could never blow out a No. 1. 

Dreams come true in March. 

Unfortunately, college basketball’s been mired in nightmare for a few years. I fell in love with the game at the tail end of its Golden Age. The latter half of the 1990s began a transition with the best players hanging around for increasingly brief durations — the right decision for them, because of various issues the NCAA needs to address, but which undoubtedly hurt the quality of play.

The NBA’s mandated age limit, implemented in 2006, forced college basketball into a steep learning curve. Programs welcomed talent that would have otherwise jumped straight from high school to the pros, but their short tenures on the college hardwood came with challenges. The correction period lasted a decade, but coupled with critical rules changes, the quality of play since the 2015-16 season has improved dramatically. 

With an improved on-court product coincides the most harsh scrutiny of the sport’s off-court problems in more than a generation, though. 

A little more than a month ahead of the 2017-18 season, scandal rocked college basketball. A great NCAA Tournament does nothing to absolve the sport of the mess incurred from the still-ongoing FBI investigation into fraud charges, especially given the number of prominent programs implicated. Nor should it. 

College sports in general need modernization. The value of a full scholarship should not be downplayed, as any of us who have dealt with student-loan debt can attest. However, the North Carolina academic scandal exposes a sinister devaluation of scholarships. Ensuring student-athletes’ education lives up to the rhetoric of those ubiquitous NCAA commercials aired each March — “we’re going pro in everything but sports” — must be the NCAA’s first focus. 

Second is providing compensation that catches up to the nature of big-time college sports in the 21st century. Advancements in training, tutoring and the recent addition of unlimited meals for all athletes (not just revenue-sport participants) deserve praise, but college sports have been woeful in matching compensation commensurate with the money being generated. 

My own NCAA Tournament dream came true in 2016 and 2017 when I covered the Final Four for the first time in my sportswriting career. Those championship weekends are spectacles, far grander in all phases than the events I watched in my childhood. The Final Four can be best described as lavish, right down to the presentation of starting lineups. 

The magic of the NCAA Tournament feels somewhat more manufactured at times now than it did in my childhood, but I’m sure my dad probably said the same of intros that featured players’ autographs back in 1992. The TV networks are simply keeping up with the times to ensure the audience is captivated — and that’s a top priority, as the aforementioned casual viewers who flock to March Madness in droves generate billions in advertising revenue. 

Without the players, there is no event to market or advertise. From a less cynical perspective, the on-court magic that creates memories, from Cinderella UMBC all the way down to national champion Villanova, doesn’t exist. 

NCAA reforms are necessary to maintain the magic of  “the greatest sporting event…in the world.”