I grew up in Kentucky, in the heyday of Adolph Rupp, so I learned early that, other than the Kentucky Derby, the NCAA basketball tournament is the grandest event there is. I love college basketball, and the NCAAs have always represented the sport at its throbbing best. That's why I'm so disgusted with the way the NCAA and the nation's athletic directors have diluted the quality of the tournament.
For many teams, including Kentucky and Louisville—the ones I cover regularly for The Courier-Journal of Louisville—regular-season conference games have become virtually meaningless. Everybody gets a new chance in the post-season conference tournaments that have sprung up all over the country. The only reward for winning the regular-season championship is a tournament bye and a seeding against a weaker team.
So what really matters is what happens in the conference tournaments. Right? Wrong! Even that isn't a matter of life and death anymore, now that the NCAA has expanded the national tournament to 48 teams. Time was when there was only one survivor—the team that finished first in a conference or won the league tournament. Now, though, apparently all you have to do to make the NCAAs is get to the conference tournament semifinals.
The 48-team format bothers me because there simply aren't that many teams that ought to be playing for the national championship. Oh, I know there have been a few times in the past when qualified teams have been denied an NCAA berth for one reason or another. That's unfortunate, but it's still better than cluttering the field with a lot of dogs. What the proliferation of tournaments and games has done is to reward mediocrity and penalize excellence.
It comes down to dollars and cents, according to Louisville Coach Denny Crum. "All the league tournaments are for is to make money," he says. "I've never liked them because they're not in the best interest of the good teams."
The main concern of the NCAA and college athletic directors seems to be healthy bank balances—more games, more gate revenue, more television money. "We bend too much for television," frets Indiana's Bobby Knight, who's happy he coaches in the Big Ten, a conference that has no tournament.
"I don't think you really need a conference tournament," Knight says. "You play a whole season to determine a champion and that's who should be the champion. In a tournament, any team can get hot and claim the title. I don't like that. I also don't know exactly how often teams that play in conference tournaments miss classes for travel, but I'd estimate you're talking about taking a kid out of class for a week."
Knight is proud of the fact that, of the scholarship players who have completed four years under him in Indiana, all but one have gotten their degrees—and that one is close to earning his. However, as players are required to spend more and more time on the court, that kind of record will become increasingly difficult to achieve. In fact, it's not stretching a point to suggest that the proliferation of games and tournaments might lead to more and more New Mexico-type academic scandals. It's no secret that a lot of college basketball players are hardly Phi Beta Kappa material. It was tough enough on them in the days when a team had to play only 25 regular-season games and four more in the NCAA tournament to win the national championship. How can they possibly cope academically when most of their time is taken up with practice, games and travel?
Consider Kentucky, for example. If the Wildcats were to win the NCAA championship this season, they would have played 38 times between Nov. 17 and March 24, including 30 regular-season games, three Southeastern Conference tournament games, three NCAA regional tournament games and two final-four games.
That's a lot of basketball, even in a program in which most of the players are decent students and in which the coach, Joe Hall, is a disciplinarian who monitors his players' performances in the classroom almost as closely as he watches their performances on the court. One can only imagine what the pressures of such a schedule might lead coaches to do at schools at which the emphasis on academics isn't as strong.
Maybe it's time for the NCAA to finally just let universities go out and hire the best players possible and not make them bother with all that tedious business of going to class and taking exams. It wouldn't be that big a change considering that, with the NBA-type schedules teams are allowed to play these days, it seems the NCAA considers the concept of the student-athlete to be as outdated as the wooden backboard.
I'd like to see the NCAA reduce the field for its tournament next season—back to, say, 16 teams—and I'd like to see athletic directors eliminate conference tournaments. Of course, it won't happen. Today, more than ever, college basketball is big business. If anything, the NCAAs will probably keep expanding until they're like a state high school tournament in which every team has a chance. From this Kentuckian's view, that would be like throwing the bourbon down the drain and drinking only the water.