- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 18, 2003

The NCAA men's basketball tournament starts this week and as always, plenty of good teams will fight it out, and a worthy champion will be crowned. The games will be compelling, wild and unpredictable. Heroes will emerge. Goats will want to hide. But none of the letters stitched on the jerseys will spell out something larger than simply the name of a particular school.

None of the letters will spell "magic."

Let's play word association: "College basketball." Answer: UCLA Bruins. Say it again. Answer: North Carolina Tar Heels. In the lingo of today's marketing-obsessed sports world, these are the two biggest "brands" in the game. True, they aren't what they used to be. But the names still stand for something tradition, success, a powerful presence and a cool arrogance that says, "We're us, you're not."

You still think of players like Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton, Phil Ford and Michael Jordan, and the coaches, John Wooden and Dean Smith, the Wizard and El Deano. Aura and mystique. Carolina blue, UCLA blue, colors as much fun to root against, if not more, as to root for, even during down times. As Bruins assistant Jim Saia said the other day, "I think people like to beat UCLA."

Just because they're UCLA.

But no one will beat UCLA in the NCAA tournament because the Bruins won't be there. They finished below .500 this season and didn't get in. North Carolina, for the second straight year, is absent, as well.

It remains a pretty good party, but not a glamorous one. It's lacking that "aura" and "mystique" words which Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Curt Schilling said sounded like two nightclub dancers and not something possessed by his team's 2001 World Series opponent, the New York Yankees.

Of all the teams in this year's NCAA tournament, Kentucky might have the glamour. From the sociologically stunted yet brilliant Adolph Rupp to the slick yet brilliant Rick Pitino, Kentucky basketball reeked of mystique. Currently, the Wildcats start the tournament as the clear favorite, riding a 23-game winning streak.

Kentucky coach Tubby Smith has proved to be a worthy successor to Rupp and Pitino, upholding the tradition with skill and class. He won a national championship in 1998. But even with all that, even though Kentucky might be the only great team in this year's field, it just doesn't feel the same.

Maybe it's because Smith seems decidedly low-key compared to his more flamboyant predecessors. Maybe it's because he inherited a great program, where Rupp built one and Pitino rebuilt it after an NCAA scandal (or maybe it's because his name is "Tubby").

"He's doing a heck of a job with a very good program, but he didn't build it," said Fran Fraschilla, the former coach at Manhattan, St. John's, New Mexico and now an ESPN commentator. "A lot of mystique is based on the force of personality of the coach."

Coaches like Georgetown's John Thompson and Indiana's Bob Knight, powerful, charismatic, larger-than-life individuals whose personal auras blinded everyone the moment they walked into a room and whose teams reflected that glow. "In many ways, those teams took on the personalities of their coaches," Fraschilla said.

But Thompson now works in radio and television and the Georgetown of today is not the Georgetown of yesteryear. The Hoyas are in the NIT. Indiana, meanwhile, barely made the NCAA tournament. The Hoosiers advanced to the NCAA title game against Maryland last year, but with Knight having been exiled to Texas Tech, they were just another really good team, coached well by someone named Mike Davis.

Arizona? The Wildcats won the national championship in 1997. They are a near-perennial Pac-10 champion and No. 1 NCAA tournament seed. Under coach Lute Olson, it has become not just a model program but a model elite program. But the Pac-10 has no national TV contract and its teams suffer from what ESPN commentator Dick Vitale calls a "time-zone problem" that limits their exposure. In the West and among "people on the inside," Vitale said, "Arizona is right there with the big guys" in terms of perception. But to the rest of the world, Arizona is regarded on a level of, say, Connecticut. Almost there, but not quite.

Even Duke, the most dominant, visible program of the last 20 years, seems to have lost a little something this year. Make it a lot of something, a lot of star power. Continuing a recent trend, Mike Dunleavy, Jay (formerly Jason) Williams and Carlos Boozer all left after last season with eligibility remaining.

It is a testament to coach Mike Krzyzewski that the Blue Devils won a fifth straight ACC tournament and remain a solid contender to win it all, but this year's team lacks a certain pizzazz, not to mention a No. 1 seed for the first time in six years.

"I think it's just a change in college basketball," said Krzyzewski, who perhaps more than any active coach has achieved Wooden and Smith-like stature. "With so many kids leaving early, you're gonna have more variance in programs throughout the country. And you're gonna have more variance in those so-called storied programs. There's not as much stability."

If the old Duke mystique does remain, it is recognized by those to whom it matters most. The players still believe in it. "As long as we have Mike Krzyzewski coaching this team and Duke on our chest we have to be considered contenders," senior guard Chris Duhon said after the ACC tournament. "No matter what anyone says."

Many coaches still complain about scholarship reductions. It allows less margin for error and heightens the impact of players leaving early, injuries, recruiting mistakes and plain bad luck.

"Part of this is the inevitability of teams having a down cycle," Fraschilla said. "Every team has it, even Duke and Kentucky. … I think everything in college basketball right now is fragile. Success can be fragile for those elite programs."

Probably the one basketball program whose aura shines more brightly than any other, whose name still evokes both fear and reverence, is the Connecticut women, the closest thing to a college dynasty since Wooden's UCLA teams. Noting the program's achievements last year, Sen. Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, said, "In all my years as a basketball fan, I have never watched a team where victory in each and every game almost seemed an inevitability."

But because of injury and inexperience, UConn, whose 70-game win streak ended last week, seems finally mortal or at least close. On the other hand, you still wouldn't want to bet against the Huskies.

This might be more than a college basketball issue. All of sports suffers from a deficiency of mystique. For decades, Notre Dame was the biggest name in college football. Then the magic pulled a disappearing act. It briefly turned up again last season but then the echoes went back to sleep. Look what's happened to Nebraska in the post-Tom Osborne era. The Miami Hurricanes had a certain mystique, but a lot of good it did them in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State.

There will be plenty of blowouts by favorites, as well as upsets and buzzer beaters this NCAA tournament, but it still won't have that same "aura" and "mystique." If fans are looking for that, they may have to check out the local nightclub.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide