One of the more troubling seasons in the history of a sport that has known its troubles ended with a celebration of – let’s say it – beautiful basketball. Villanova is easy on the eyes, and also the ears. This is a program that actually enjoys attention. Heck, Jay Wright even likes the media. (Roll over, Bobby Knight, and tell Jim Boeheim the news.)
Villanova won it all in 2016. Villanova won again in 2018. Villanova might win again next spring. This is a program moving from strength to strength. If it doesn’t recruit on the same level as Duke and Kentucky … well, who’s to say that’s a bad thing? Of all the post-UCLA teams that have taken two titles in a three-year span – it’s a short list, numbering Duke’s back-to-back champs of 1991 and ’92; Kentucky’s 1996 win under Rick Pitino and its ’98 triumph under Tubby Smith, and Florida’s two in a row in 2006 and 2007 – this was the most fun to watch.
What comes next for the sport mightn’t be so pretty. The FBI investigation, which has unseated four assistant coaches at schools in three different conferences plus the Hall of Famer Pitino at Louisville, is ongoing. Arizona’s Sean Miller proclaimed his innocence after ESPN reported he was taped by the Feds discussing a $100,000 payment to then-recruit Deandre Ayton, remains employed, but nobody who tracks the sport believes his job is secure. The same holds with Bruce Pearl, who led Auburn to a share of the SEC regular-season title despite seeing one assistant coach, two staffers and two recruits become collateral damage.
The NCAA committee chaired by Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to offer its drain-the-swamp recommendations at month’s end. There’s no knowing what will be advocated. There’s also no knowing what will be approved by the association’s membership. Just because something needs to be done – even NCAA president Mark Emmert admits as much – doesn’t mean that something will find the needed votes among university presidents.
There’s also this: The FBI investigation involves NCAA teams, yes, but it’s not yet an NCAA investigation. The sport’s governing body never met a case it can’t botch. Remember all the names of players that appeared in the Yahoo! Sports report of leaked Fed findings? Know how many kept playing? All but one. There’s tons of smoke, but we can’t yet gauge the extent of the fire.
The NCAA wants the NBA players association to change its age limit and thereby end one-and-done, but all the NCAA can do is ask and say, “Pretty please.” The NCAA is seeking meaningful talks with the AAU, but how apt is the latter to say, “Hey, you’re right – we’re just going to stop what we’ve been doing”? The NCAA hopes to clean up college basketball without paying its players, which is to say it has no immediate plans to do anything but further the same old folly.
For those who tuned out the sport, this tournament was one to bring you back. But college basketball must ask itself what it wants to be, and there may be no good answer. Without the one-and-dones, the game would lose star power. With the one-and-dones, it has lost both continuity and credibility. Not every program can be a Villanova and play at the highest level without lottery-tier talent. No matter how much they might protest, every coach would kill for a one-and-done. (If not for Carmelo Anthony, Boeheim’s national title total would stand at zero.)
There are so many entities with vested interests – the NCAA, its coaches, their players, the NBA, the AAU, the shoe companies, the broadcast media – that it will tax even a former Secretary of State to forge a working coalition. It could be that all that has happened will change next to nothing. It could be that the NCAA watches the “One Shining Moment” clip from the Dance that just ended and decides that the status quo isn’t status no-no.
The product, it must be said, is far superior to that of five years ago. Dan Gavitt, the NCAA’s basketball chief, and Dan Calandro, its rules guy, labored long and well to return the emphasis to skill, as opposed to heft. The last three NCAA champs – Villanova, North Carolina, Villanova again – were teams that could create offense. Teams that subsist on body-checking defense haven’t lasted long in March, let alone play on the first Monday in April.
The Feds’ investigation dealt a massive blow to a recovering sport, and the Feds might not be one-and-done. This could wind up anywhere. Does Arizona dare to keep Miller for another season when his former assistant, Emanuel “Book” Richardson, is scheduled to stand trial? (Ditto with Auburn, Pearl and ex-assistant Chuck Person.) With Richardson’s trial date set for 2019, does the school act on what might be revealed, or does it allow Miller to become a real-life Joe Btfsplk, patrolling the sideline under his own personal cloud?
But what would be the cost of the NCAA and its member institutions doing nothing, of waiting years for federal cases to reach their conclusion? What if the recommendations offered by Rice’s committee amount to nothing more than, “Hey, everyone – let’s try to do a bit better”?
The season that just ended saw an exemplary program stand atop the mountain. Staring down from that lofty perch, all that can be seen is the slipperiest of slopes.