by Kent Sterling
Last night, Louisville did what they do. They won by finding a way to make a couple of two-minute stretches break the backs of their opponent. Luke Hancock knocked down shots, and Michigan didn’t have enough second half answers to get over the hump that got bigger with every possession.
As with all NCAA Tourneys, there were magnificent upsets that began when these college students were shooting in a gym as fourth graders because they hated losing their last game, and came to fruition because of the faith they had in each other.
Florida Gulf Coast played with a fearless joy, and became the first team to go to the Sweet 16 as a #15 seed. Their coach cashed in on the run with a multi-million dollar contract to take his leadership to USC. His players are back in classrooms wondering where they will get $30 to take their girlfriends to a movie.
There was a lot to revel in, and almost as much to hope for in the future. Sixty-three teams that began play on the first Thursday of the tournament went home ready to work hard to get another bite at the apple next year, and Louisville showed how much fun playing the game with deliberate mania can be.
Rick Pitino showed that being a partner on the ride is better leadership than the tight-fisted micromanagement other coaches showed.
There is a lot that can be done to improve this event, and while I know most of the below are pipe dreams that will never be acted upon, but dreams are where change starts, so I guess there is always hope.
- I love ESPN, but for the love of God it’s time for Digger Phelps to move on. The first thing a coach must do to succeed is to outcoach the fans, and the first thing an analyst must do is out-analyze them. Digger is a victim of bad casting by being paired with an incredibly well-prepared sharp guy like Jay Bilas. Phelps not only appears to be a dolt because Bilas is really good, but because while watching, viewers believe they know more about the game than he does.
- CBS needs to stop prodding Jim Nantz to be energetic. He is who he is – broadcasting’s answer of Bill Lumbergh in “Office Space”. He is milquetoast personified, and that’s okay. His job is to keep the show moving and set the table for Clark Kellogg and Steve Kerr. The “Hello, friends” schtick is tired, but not offensive enough to cause viewers to opt out. If Nantz continues to evolve into a hyper-emotive personality, he will alienate and – more importantly – worry viewers. Yelling platitudes and grinning broadly is not Nantz’s game, and he should back off the throttle.
- Limiting timeouts would help the broadcasts move with better pace, and keep the coaches from taking the game out of the players’ hands. Coaches trying to be the stars of the games is tiresome, and trimming timeouts from five each to three will help.
- The block/charge call is being hammered by people who know a whole lot about basketball. I don’t understand what is so screwy about it. If the offensive player creates contact with a player in correct defensive position, it’s a charge. If the defensive player hasn’t established position, it’s a block. I’m good with that. Officials in last night’s game missed an obvious goaltend, an obvious kicked ball, and allowed a pass to a player who hadn’t yet established both feet inbounds. Changing the charge/block should be done with care. The potential for unintended consequences by altering rules are significant.
- Get rid of replay. No offense to either Michigan or Louisville, but no matter who won that game, the sun was going to come up today, and for every disappointed gambler, there is always an ecstatic gambler. It’s a zero sum game. Stopping the game to check for flagrant fouls and minor clock issues is a bad use of technology. Try like hell to get the call right at the time, and trust that close is good enough. If you have to screw around with replay, get it done as quickly as we know the correct call at home.
- The relentless fouling at the end of games makes the final minute or two of games incredibly difficult to watch, but the alternative would be worse. When a team’s only way back into a game is fouling, the consequence of taking that option away (or making the penalty for a foul so onerous that fouling no longer makes sense) would be to end the game. That would make the finish more certain/less dramatic, and that’s bad for fan interest.
- Move the field back to 64 teams. Call the games played on the first Tuesday and Wednesday what you like, but they are meaningless and unnecessary contrivances designed only to expand the inventory networks have to sell. The bracket is the key to the broad popularity of March Madness, and the play-in games make it impossible to fill out a bracket with any precision until Thursday morning. This is a pipe dream as CBS and Turner run things, and contracting the number of events available for sale is simply not what networks do.
The NCAA Tournament is now and has always been the most consistent dramatic event on the sports calendar, and tweaking it should only be done with great care. Most of the needed changes are cosmetic, and I’m not holding my breath because the motivation for all things in media is cash. None of what I want will make anyone an extra dime. Money wins.