4/2/07 – A Tale of Two Tournaments

The NCAA Tournament games on Saturday night weren’t as nail biting as I had hoped they would be, but no one can think that a pair of unworthy teams has advanced to the final game tonight. The season began with 336 teams playing Division I college basketball; there are two still playing; both are very good.

I do have to ask, however, if anyone who has followed college basketball for any period of time has ever seen a more irrelevant 17 point performance than the one posted by Aaron Afflalo on Saturday night? Garbage time started in that game when he finally scored. Afflalo – and to a lesser extent Jeff Green of Georgetown – used the game on Saturday as a very good reason to go back to school next year and forego the NBA draft one more time. Both wilted in that important game; that could not send their NBA stock soaring.

For the record, I don’t think Greg Oden or Roy Hibbert will make a huge impact in the NBA next season should either enter the NBA draft. They’ll both do fine over the long haul, but each will flounder next season if they turn pro. However, going back to school for another season does not always help a player in terms of his basketball future. Last year, Glenn “Big Baby” Davis was one of the tournament darlings but he went back to LSU and may or may not be a lottery pick.

I want to spend the rest of this rant on the Women’s NCAA Tournament today. I flipped back and forth to the semi-final games last night. The Rutgers/LSU game combined all the elements of a dreadful game. The talent level was mediocre; the game was a blowout; there was only marginal “electricity” from the crowd. In fact, there were empty seats at the national semi-final games – and I don’t mean one or two empty seats. I haven’t found the announced attendance for those games last night appended to any of the box scores or game recaps; I wonder if that is “accidental”.

The Women’s NCAA tournament is in trouble. This is the college sporting event that is the crown jewel of Title IX; this is the event that should demonstrate the economic viability and the baseline interest in women’s collegiate athletics. It has a network TV contract on ESPN but that is about the end of the line for the women’s tournament in terms of anything related to “big time”. In the first round of the tournament, they played a set of games in Los Angeles. That city has been known to take an interest in basketball and it is a city that loyal fans from the teams involved can get to relatively easily and have things to do other than go to the game. It’s not as if they played round one in Buttsniff, Idaho. The attendance reportedly was 878. Excuse me, but that’s a respectable attendance for a first round playoff game in a state high school basketball tournament not the crown jewel of women’s collegiate athletics.

A while back, the geniuses that run the women’s tournament decided that they were indeed ready for prime time and went to “pre-determined sites” for all the games. After all, that’s what the men did. It took away the fairly obvious favoritism of playing early round games on the home courts of the top teams and it drew crowds; but it also reeked of manipulated match-ups for the early round games. The problem is that most of the women’s teams don’t have fans at the school who are willing to travel to see them play; and if both teams are “away teams”, no one shows up. ESPN can hype the games and feign excitement for the games and put on studio shows about the tournament till the cows come home; but it doesn’t change things. Nobody goes to the arena; nobody watches on TV.

Maybe they need to go back to playing on the campuses of the top seeds and just throw those low-seeded teams to the wolves. I guess ESPN would not like to see a lot of 75-29 games, but maybe that’s what they have to risk to put some fannies in the seats to make it look as if they are televising something that someone somewhere ought to give a damn about. If you think I’m the only one who believes that this tournament is on the brink of implosion, Pat Summitt also thinks it is in trouble. She says things have to change:

“I would hate to see us go into another postseason and experience what we have this year. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But right now, it appears that it may be broken.”

So, let me offer a suggestion to the geniuses who run the women’s tournament. Before anyone screeches, let me say that I fully recognize that it is a step backwards and that it is not fully congruent with the underlying social philosophy of Title IX’s equality provisions. Nevertheless, maybe what these folks need to do is:

      1. Stop televising all 63 games. If you have to put that many teams into the field to demonstrate equality/congruence with the men’s tournament, at least you shouldn’t advertise that no one cares about those early round games.

      2. When you televise the regional tournaments and the final four games – and ignore all the rest –, be certain that the arenas are full. Give tickets away; if that doesn’t work, Shanghai people and strap them into the seats. Make it a certainty that the house is at least 95% full; you can even augment the crowd noise if you want. Give the people watching a sense that the people in the audience care about the outcome. If they don’t care, why shouldn’t I hit my remote and go watch something else like pro ‘rassling, spring training baseball, re-runs of Law and Order, or an infomercial about the latest innovation in kitchen knife technology?

Since all of today’s commentary was about college basketball, let me close with two comments from Scott Ostler yesterday in the San Francisco Chronicle:

“Memo to TV director for the NCAA championship game: Whenever a guy scores a big basket, keep giving us that 10-second close-up of his face as he runs back downcourt, because who really cares about the game that’s still happening? We can’t get enough of those pimple-cam shots.

“Memo to TV announcers for that game: Make sure you continue to salute a coach for calling ‘a great timeout’ after his team has been stunned by a 10-0 blitz. That’s like saluting me for a great column just because I’ve decided to end it.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports…

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