I wrote a sentence in today’s Washington Post that comes back to me every March: The NCAA basketball tournament is so good even the NCAA can’t ruin it. The line is actually a spinoff of something Tony LaRussa said to me back in 1992 when we were discussing the inevitably of another work stoppage in baseball because the owners had decided to declare war on the players union. When I asked LaRussa how badly the game would be damaged he smiled and said, “The game is better than all of us.”
He was right. The same is true of the tournament. Thursday afternoon, if you were at home with your TV remote, you got one remarkable finish after another and you no doubt came away thinking, “Now I remember what all the hype is about.” Sitting in Verizon Center watching Butler play Old Dominion I thought the same thing. Of course I also thought it was ridiculous for two teams this good to have to play one another in the first round. Clearly the committee didn’t want either of these teams taking on one of their cherished lower-seeded teams from a major conference because the result would have been similar to Richmond-Vanderbilt and Gonzaga-St. John’s. Seriously, who scouted The Atlantic-10 for the committee this year, Charlie Sheen?
A couple of fairly interesting notes did surface before yesterday’s game. Someone who once served on the committee pointed out to me that this is the first year in almost 40 years that Tom Jernstedt wasn’t in the committee room. Jernstedt was always the staff member, I’m told, who was the calming influence, who had the ability to get away from just looking at numbers to point out cracks in the bracket that needed to be fixed.
“Tom didn’t just stare at a computer the way the (staff) techno-geeks do now,” the ex-member said. (I’m not using his name because I don’t want to jeopardize his lifetime pass to The Final Four). “He’d go out for a drink when everything was done with a couple of guys and actually TALK basketball. Then he’d come back in the morning and say, ‘fellas, I think we need to look at this again.’ They didn’t have that this year.”
That’s a good point. A couple of other notes: If you wonder why Colorado didn’t make the field think about this: Dan Beebe is on the committee. He’s the commissioner of The Big 12—which happens to be the league Colorado is leaving next year. You think Beebe’s colleagues knew how he felt about that departure? Beebe was also, it turns out, this year’s tournament scout for the ACC. I’m sure Seth Greenberg will be sending him flowers—along with Ron Wellman—sometime in the near future.
Oh, one other thing: There were four No. 16 seeds sent to Dayton: UNC-Asheville; Arkansas-Little Rock; Texas-San Antonio and Alabama State. If you were to rank those four teams based on their resumes Asheville and UALR would be 1 and 2. And yet, they played one another while Texas-San Antonio somehow drew Alabama State, a .500 team that was clearly the weakest team in the field based on regular season results.
Hmmm. How did that happen? Couldn’t have anything to do with Lynn Hickey, the AD at Texas-San Antonio being on the committee could it? Her buddies decided they would do everything they could to hand her school an NCAA Tournament win—and succeeded.
Here’s the thing about being in an arena for this tournament. It is still great fun because the games are great fun. But you feel like you are living in a police state. NO ONE is allowed to take any kind of drink anyplace unless it is in the appropriate corporate cup. I have seen coaches practically tackled walking onto a podium because they haven’t poured their postgame drink into the right cup.
Even the TV guys, for all the money their networks have spent on the tournament, are on eggshells. In NCAA world there is no such thing as The NBA—seriously, that is one of the marching orders the announcers are given. You do NOT refer to a player’s pro potential or even ‘the next level.’ It doesn’t exist. A few years ago when George Washington was in the tournament Red Auerbach’s name came up. At no point did the words, ‘Boston Celtics,’ cross anyone’s lips. There is also, as we know, no such thing as gambling. I almost fell off my chair laughing Tuesday night when Seth Davis gave Asheville a chance to beat Pittsburgh and Charles Barkley immediately said he’d like to make a wager with Seth on that game. Before this is over, Barkley may let one of the dreaded ‘L’ words—Lebron, Lakers—slip out of his mouth.
The good news about being in the media is we still get great seats. The day is coming when we’re moved up to hockey press boxes and that will be the day when I DO stay home. As it is, The Final Four court is now raised so that everyone at courtside—except for the TV guys who sit on raised chairs—is looking up at the court. That’s so the corporate types right behind us have a better view. Okay, fine.
But can the NCAA at least come up with halfway decent internet? The NCAA is the ONLY event—major or minor—that charges for internet use. They claim it is because of ‘existing contracts.’ I think it is because they want to scoop up every dollar they can find on every street corner. Being charged wouldn’t make people so angry if the internet WORKED. It never does—and I mean never. This year we were told that each credential-holder had to pay a $20 fee to get a hard-wire line at your seat. (You had to pay the $20 regardless so you might as well pay for the hard-wire).
Okay fine, at least that should be reliable. Except it wasn’t. I was sitting between Liz Clarke from The Post and Dana O’Neil from ESPN.com both of whom had to file at the end of each game at the buzzer. There was ONE Ethernet line for four seats—not one for each seat as promised. The wireless didn’t work. Then the Ethernet didn’t work. Poor Mex Carey, the Georgetown SID who is in charge of this site, was getting yelled at from about 15 sides at once. It wasn’t his fault. It was the NCAA’s fault and the fault of the incompetent internet company it insists on using every year. Existing contracts my you-know-what. How about FIRING someone for cause.
Okay, enough boring sportswriter stuff.
Here are some other observations from day one:
--Morehead State over Louisville was the game of the day although Kentucky-Princeton would have topped it if the Tigers had pulled the game out. Would the state of Kentucky have simply shut down entirely if both teams had lost in the first round on the same day?
Connecticut is for real. That week in The Big East was no fluke. Bucknell is not a bad mid-major team and it had NO chance against the Huskies. They have a truly great player in Kemba Walker; they’re deep; they have great size and length and they have a coach who knows what to do this time of year. If they end up in the Final Four it will be no surprise to me.
--Butler is a great group of kids to talk to. They’re bright, they’re outgoing, they’re honest and they’re funny. I have nothing at all against Pittsburgh, in fact I like Jamie Dixon a lot, but if they could pull off the upset on Saturday it would be a lot of fun. By the way, how good would Butler be if Gordon Hayward had stuck around?
--I love college basketball but I’ve gotten too old to make it through four games in a day that average about 2:15 apiece. I missed Cincinnati-Missouri. Kemba Walker could feel his legs. I couldn’t feel mine. It’s also tough when you have 45 minutes to get something to eat between sessions—I had to write—and the NCAA has mandated you may have ONE chicken breast. Seriously, I’ve never believed food in the press room needs to be free. But when you have no choice but to eat there, you should be able to pay and not have someone tell you, ‘one per customer pal.’ I was in the building for 11 hours Thursday (and I missed the last game remember) I could have used one more piece of chicken. (Yes, I ate my veggies but come on, how much can a man take?).
Today, I get to sit home and watch on TV. I’m looking forward to it. I can drink out of any cup I want to drink out of and have more than one chicken breast. And I can use the remotes during the endless TV timeouts and the 20-minute halftime. Line of the day from CAA commissioner Tom Yeager: “You can recruit a transfer before the game starts and by the time halftime is over, he might be eligible.”
The tournament is a beautiful thing.
I’ve noticed a number of people have e-mailed or posted about my not being on Tony Kornheiser’s show the last couple of weeks.
Tony and I are just fine, in fact we talked at length on Wednesday. But his radio station made a budget decision to not pay regular guests on his show anymore and I felt, even though the money is minimal, that if the station didn’t value my time enough to continue paying me, then I shouldn’t continue to appear. I won’t put words in Tony’s mouth but I think it is fair to say that he understood my decision.
My basic policy on radio and TV has been pretty consistent through the years: If stations call me on occasion and ask me to come on to talk about a specific event or breaking news, I’m no different than the people I ask for interview time: I just do it. I expect them, in return, to have me on when I have a book out and with perhaps two exceptions through the years—a station in Phoenix I can’t remember and Mark Packer in Charlotte, who I do remember—they have understood the quid pro quo.
If a station asks me to appear regularly—as in at least once a week—they’re almost always getting the segment sponsored and, in any event, if I’m being asked to carve out time each week, I think I should be paid something. Tony, with his co-hosts and regular guests, has traditionally had a bigger budget than other shows at WTEM. He feels—and I agree— he should be able to do that since he’s got the station’s highest-rated show. Now, he’s been told he has to cut back. These things happen. I’ve got no hard feelings; I’m still on with Andy Pollin and Steve Czaban once a week and life moves on. I’ll miss doing the show—it’s fun—but I felt this was the right decision under the circumstances.