Thrill of Victory

The NCAA got the game it desperately needed, but will it matter?

Dear NCAA,

Let me open by saying that while it’s been fashionable to criticize you for years, I’m not one of your knee-jerk critics. Sure, you’ve made some mistakes, but in the last year or two, I see the sincerity of your effort to clean up college sports. It’s difficult to wield the power you do and not upset somebody nearly all the time. You’re an easy target; I get that, and so I’m careful not to pile on just because everyone else.

However, you still have some blind spots in how you do things. With regards to your men’s college basketball product, you have a lot of them.

Then again, you don’t need me to tell you that, the television ratings already have. Last night’s 14.3 rating with your title game shows that you’re getting just half the viewers that you were 15 years ago. It gets worse when you consider that America has about 42 million people more than it had then.

Okay, you say, the ratings from last night’s game were 18 percent better than last year’s. That’s progress, right? Look a little closer, and I think not.

The nature of life dictates that you’re sometimes handed a gift. Major League Baseball, which for the last quarter-century has made so many poor decisions that Lindsey Lohan looks wise by comparison, saw its popularity boom again not long after a catastrophic labor stoppage due to Cal Ripken’s consecutive game streak coupled with the Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa home run race of 1998, even if the latter turned out to be a fraud. Golf had Tiger Woods, cycling had Lance Armstrong; I could go on but you get the picture.

The point is, no matter how much you screw up, fate sometimes hands you a golden opportunity at redemption on a silver platter. And if last night’s game between Louisville and Michigan was anything, it was that, because I don’t know how you could have written a better script coming into Monday.

First, Louisville coach Rick Pitino had a chance to become the first coach to win a national title at two different schools — which he did. Plus, the sympathies of the nation were already with the Cardinals after Kevin Ware’s gruesome injury forced him to miss the Final Four, which took place in his hometown of Atlanta. There was also the story of Cardinal point guard Peyton Siva and how his character and work ethic helped him escape an awful home life to shine on the big stage.

And, of course, there was Luke Hancock’s out-of-the-blue performance on Saturday to get the Cardinals past Wichita State and into the title game. To boot, we learned that Hancock’s father is gravely ill and was barely well enough to watch his son play in person.

Then, there was Michigan, the youngest of the 68 teams in the NCAA Tournament, led by the nation’s best player in Trey Burke. The Wolverines had tremendous talent, and were at the top of their game coming in. You’d have to go back a few years to find a team as fun to watch as this bunch.

Put it all together, and even my wife — who almost never watches college basketball — was interested in seeing this one.

And then, you caught your second break. Rarely do games this hyped live up to promise, but this one did — and then some. Simply put, it was the most exciting display of basketball for 40 full minutes that I’ve witnessed in years. There were highlight-reel dunks, spectacular long-range shots, and Cinderella performances from Hancock and Michigan’s Spike Albrecht, who scored 17 first-half points out of absolutely nowhere. The only thing missing was a end-game buzzer-beater, but the game itself was so great that nobody cared.

This was the day that should have launched a new generation of basketball fans, such as the Michigan State-Indiana State title game of 1979 did, when Magic Johnson squared off vs. Larry Bird in front of 35.1 million fans. But I’ll bet it didn’t, and it has nothing to do with the game itself.

As great as the contest was, my wife fell asleep early in the second half. She’d worked a full day, and had to get up early this morning to do it again. I’m sure she wasn’t the only one; the contest didn’t tip off until 8:23 and didn’t end until 10:45.

And that’s Central Time. Imagine being a viewer on the East Coast.

Why do you insist on starting your biggest game of the year after the bedtimes of an entire future generation of young fans who have school the next day — not to mention adults who have to arise early the next day to go to work?

I know, I know… you’ve started the game no earlier than 9:15 Eastern since 1991. This is the way things have been done for some time. But again, after an initial burst of success, look what’s happened to your ratings since.

And don’t get me started on the excessive number of time-outs that cause games to drag out. A basketball game should never last over two hours unless it goes to overtime; last night’s game was decided in regulation, and yet it lasted over 2:20.

Second, your officials still don’t know how to call a basketball game. Last night, you had your best crew out there, and it was still lacking. It wasn’t so much the missed calls (those happen) as much as it is the style of play that’s allowed, which is now ingrained in the college basketball culture.

Of course, you can’t change the way you’ve called things for years just before one final game and expect teams to adjust. So last night, we were treated to more of the constant holding, excessive on-ball contact and full-out wrestling matches in the post that have completely disrupted the flow of the game and caused us to wonder what constitutes a foul any more.

Incidentally, you started allowing these things to happen about 20 years ago. Again, I ask you to consider what’s happened to your TV ratings since.

Both teams bailed you out last night because they had superior athletes who played at a fast pace. But had two different teams been in the title game, we may well have had a replay of the Connecticut-Butler dud from two years ago. And even in the light of that fantastic contest we saw last evening, a lot of the talk today is on how the officiating detracted from the quality of the game (and according to Michigan fans, tainted the outcome).

So in spite of yourself, you got a great game last night. I hope there’s another to match next year. I’ll be watching, because you hooked me on your product years ago, when the game was clean and I could watch without being sent to bed before it was over.

But last night, I’m afraid you missed your chance to grab a whole new generation of fans who might have followed you religiously for the next few decades. Until you learn from your mistakes, you have only yourself to blame.