Thursday, March 24, 2011

NCAA Basketball Is Not Perfect, Until Now

As the NCAA tournament is set to tip-off the Sweet 16 round tonight, thousands of hoop stars around the country, and the world, will be shooting, passing, jumping, bumping, guarding, and jawing on the hundreds of basketball courts we are blessed to call our own. Whether you’re hooping-it-up on the blacktop or popping it from deep in the local gymnasium, you are excited because you know that the rest of the sporting world wishes they could be doing what you’re doing right now-and that is balling.

The circle of life reminds us of its presence during this time. Memories of past championship glory intertwine with hopes of future triumphs while the present unfolds before our eyes. Who will make the next great buzzer-beater, a la Christian Laettner? Who will carry his team to the title while evoking images of Danny Manning or Carmelo Anthony? Who, on this court right now, will grow into the type of athlete that could someday get the opportunity to shine before the nation for three weeks while claiming a page of history as his own?

There is a unique bond between the excitement and purity of college basketball and the playgrounds of Any City, U.S.A. This bond is stronger than it is with the NBA because, while most street ballers understand the gap in talent between NBA all-star and backyard hero, there are several weekend warriors who may believe that their starting five could beat VCU, or Butler, or even a Florida State or UConn, depending on just how “tight the comp” is in their neighborhood.

The truth is ninety-five percent of any combination of playground legends in the world would lose ninety-five times out of a hundred to not only Richmond or Morehead State, but any D1 school in the land. The other five percent would lose at least half the time, and that takes into consideration the fact that there are several blacktop legends that did play in the highest collegiate level themselves. There are plenty of players whom we cheered for during years past that now play the game as only a hobby.

While the entire NBA is easily accessible for examination, most college basketball teams fly under the radar all year until now. The average fan sees highlights of LeBron, Durant, and Dwight-all leaders of contending teams-but they also know what a beast Blake Superior is and what a blur John Wall is has proven to be, no matter how terrible their teams are now.

The college game, with rosters full of young freshmen waiting the requisite year before they can enter the NBA draft and older upper classmen who have yet to prove themselves as ready for the pro ranks, is rife with turnover that only your local pizza parlor can appreciate.

This lack of continuity produces a chink in the armor that is college basketball integrity. This chink in the armor gives the rest of us an excuse to dismiss the game as a glorified farm league, serving only as a forum for high-school stars to improve their draft stock.

This unfortunate reality belittles the hard work that these anonymous teams put in throughout the year. While the game is not currently in optimal shape, the teams still must put in the hours during the off-season and training camp in order to succeed in March. The teams that have reached this point still play for the name on the front of the jersey, no matter how many players may leave campus for greener pastures next season. There are still stars that will leave their imprint on this tournament, whether it is true freshman Kyrie Irving of Duke or fifth-year senior David Lighty from Ohio St.

Sure, the NBA is wrong for prohibiting high-school stars from entering the draft, thus forcing NCAA schools to take their chances on one-year wonders, or, in the case of Brandon Jennings, forcing these players to embark on an overseas, one-year adventure while anxiously awaiting their turn to shake the commissioner's hand in late June.

But the NCAA tournament hides these imperfections, if only for a few weeks. And playgrounds around the United States and abroad are better for it. This, in turn, makes for an exciting tournament for years to come.

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