The excitement of March isn't quite what it used to be.
Photo: Ronald Martinez
Photo: Ronald Martinez

The state of college basketball? Dismal

On media day for the inaugural College Football Playoff championship, I mentioned the amusing week-by-week unveiling of CFP ratings to a man who knows collegiate sports well. I’m sure, I said, that if the football committee had its way, it would do as the NCAA’s basketball committee does and release only one set of rankings at the very end.

“Maybe,” the man said, “but those rankings stirred up conversation.”

Then he said this: “College basketball might want to try it. It needs something.”

At this late date, college basketball needs anything it can get. A great game has been reduced to niche status. According to Business Insider, a Harris Poll released last month showed college hoops as the eighth-favorite sport of 2,255 U.S. adults. Hockey, which plays better to Canadians, and soccer, often viewed as antithetical to Americans, ranked higher.

And here’s the chilling part: In 1991, a similar Harris Poll listed college hoops third behind the NFL and baseball. In less than a quarter-century, college basketball has been reduced to something watched by the masses only when March arrives.

The NCAA tournament remains armor-plated, if for no other reason than millions of Americans — to borrow the words of former AJC colleague Gerry Overton that spawned Bradley’s Bracket Fiasco, about to enter its 28th year — consider it their duty to enter an office pool. But college teams play for four months before Selection Sunday, and it isn’t just that those games don’t matter. It’s as if they don’t exist.

Two years ago, this correspondent averred that college basketball was in real trouble. Today we find remedies being proposed left and right, with most fix-its advocating the abolition of one-and-done and tweaks to allow teams to make actual baskets. Those are key issues, yes, but there’s an even bigger problem. It’s called football.

We Americans went crazy for pro football long ago, and we’ve since gone ga-ga for the college version. The BCS — the flawed system that sought to bring a championship game to a sport that had none — had much to do with the surge, and Year 1 of the playoff yielded stirring games and massive TV numbers. The difference is, football fans aren’t about to tune out the regular season. And the elongation of football into mid-January — and surely later when the playoff expands — will hurt college hoops even more.

Those of a certain age cite Jan. 20, 1968 — No. 1 UCLA against No. 2 Houston in the Astrodome, as televised nationally by TVS — as the night college basketball came of age. Some among us now identify Dec. 15, 2012, as the day the sport cratered. That Saturday, No. 1 Indiana was upset by famous upsetter Butler in overtime on CBS, and that stirring game drew a lesser TV rating than the New Mexico Bowl featuring 7-5 Arizona and 7-5 Nevada.

Back to the Harris Polls: It’s no accident that the decline of college basketball’s popularity began in the ’90s. Kevin Garnett bypassed college and was taken in the 1995 NBA draft; Kobe Bryant made the jump the next year, Tracy McGrady the year after that. Those three changed basketball on two levels, and not for the better. Too many high schoolers tried to do as KG and Kobe and T-Mac had done, and the NBA wearied of paying guaranteed money to teens who weren’t ready.

In 2006, the NBA adopted an age limit: A player had to be either 19 or one year removed from his high school graduation to be drafted. That led to the one-and-done, which everyone professes to hate, Kentucky coach John Calipari included. (This week the NCAA, the NBA and the National Association of Basketball Coaches announced a joint proposal to give collegians another month to mull leaving school, which wouldn’t halt one-and-dones but might save some from making lousy career decisions.)

The one-and-done has stripped college basketball of carryover. One reason UCLA-Houston held such allure was that it brought a rematch of Alcindor vs. Hayes from the previous Final Four. Most of the best players from any contemporary Final Four will be in the NBA six months hence. It’s no wonder so few among us care about college basketball before March: It takes us that long just to learn the new names.

Because there are so few skilled collegiate players, the sport has skewed toward defense. (It’s easier to bump someone than to make a shot while being bumped.) Because so many games defy watching — the halftime score of No. 1 Kentucky against No. 4 Louisville on Dec. 27 was 22-18 — college hoops has become repellent to casual fans.

Now for the really bad news: Our fast-twitch society isn’t geared to comebacks. A lessening of one-and-dones and a shortened shot clock won’t make up for two decades of diminishing interest. College basketball has become a flimsy sport propped up by three weeks of brackets. College hoops got small as college football was getting huge, and I really don’t see that changing.