- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 18, 2004

Of all the Carmelo Anthony jerseys on hand today in Denver when Syracuse begins defense of its NCAA men’s basketball championship, none will be worn by Carmelo Anthony.

This turned out to be good for Anthony, not so good for Syracuse.

Anthony, who led the Orangemen to the title as a freshman last year, left school for the NBA. He was the No.3 pick and signed a contract worth more than $10million over three years (plus more than $20million in endorsements). Playing, coincidentally, for the Denver Nuggets, Anthony has been superb, a potential rookie of the year. He is the main reason the previously woebegone Nuggets have a chance to make the playoffs.

Syracuse has had a nice season, too, at 21-7. But the Orangemen are seeded fifth in the Phoenix regional and facing long odds. Had Anthony stuck around, they figured to have a great chance. Instead, someone else probably will win it all, maybe the eighth school in the last eight years.

Perhaps it will be Texas, which went to the Final Four last year and came back to go 23-7 and earn a No.3 seed in the Atlanta regional. But if All-American point guard T.J. Ford had returned instead of going to the NBA after his sophomore year, the Longhorns might be the big favorite.

They’re not.

No one is.

Somewhere, Pete Rozelle, who as NFL commissioner seemingly invented the concept of parity, or at least elevated it to an art form, is loving this.

As the wraps come off the NCAA tournament today, there is little dissent with the notion that the competition is more wide open than ever — probably because it is. “More teams this year than in the last 20 to 25 years can win the national championship,” Arizona athletic director Jim Livengood said before he and his fellow tournament selection committee members met to pick and seed the teams.

Said Arizona coach Lute Olson: “There will be somebody who will get hot at the right time, just like Syracuse did last year.”

The fun thing is, no one knows who that will be.

“There hasn’t been one team that has been dominant in college basketball this year,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told reporters. “There’s been a lot of really good ones, and that means it’s going to be a very wide-open tournament.”

Syracuse without Anthony is a pretty good team. It might, in fact, prove to be one of those “really good” teams. But if Anthony had stayed and shown typical freshman-to-sophomore improvement, the Orangemen might have been great and the college basketball world be chattering about the first potential repeat since Duke in 1992.

Ah, Duke. Those were the days, when talented seniors were not to be gawked and pointed at for being so different. The Blue Devils back then were the last true dynasty of college basketball. They won it again in 2001 and have remained a glamour name, but this year’s team, seeded No.1 in the Atlanta regional, is just one of many with a shot.

“There are fewer lottery picks and seniors hanging around,” said ESPN commentator Jay Bilas, who played at Duke in the 1980s, when lottery picks and seniors hung around there. “Teams don’t stay together, and it’s next to impossible for them to repeat. Unless you have an extraordinary group of kids turning down the riches of the NBA Draft, and the likelihood of that is extremely slim.”

But it does happen. In 2000, senior point guard Mateen Cleaves, who considered turning pro but returned to Michigan State, led the Spartans to a championship. Kansas, with seniors Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison, would have beaten Syracuse in the championship game last year instead of losing by three if it had shot just slightly better than 12-for-30 from the foul line. Maryland won its first national championship in 2002 thanks mainly to seniors Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter.

But the Terps failed to repeat last year, partly because they missed Chris Wilcox, who skipped out for the NBA after his sophomore year.

At least Wilcox contributed to a championship. At least Carmelo Anthony and Syracuse got the most out of his one season. Some programs aren’t so lucky. Mississippi State has a terrific team, 25-3 and seeded No.2 in the Atlanta regional. Mario Austin left after his junior season, but we can only imagine how good the Bulldogs would be if recruits Travis Outlaw and Wojciech Barycz had showed up in Starkville instead of turning pro (although getting Baylor transfer Lawrence Roberts took away some of the sting).

Arizona has had a subpar year, by its standards, entering the tournament as a No.9 seed. One reason is a lack of quality depth. Chances are, this would not have been an issue if Ndudbi Edi, considered the second-best high school player behind LeBron James last year, had not turned pro after signing a letter of intent.

It’s a good bet the Washington Wizards’ Kwame Brown would be gone from Florida even if he had picked college over the NBA after coming out of high school and signed with the Gators in 2001. But Brown is old news in Gainesville. As if college programs haven’t been affected enough by kids leaving or not coming before the season, now they are getting socked by midseason) defections. Less than a month ago, forward Christian Drejer walked into Florida coach Billy Donovan’s office and announced he was leaving to play in Spain, where a three-year, $1million contract awaited.

Seeded No.5 in the East Rutherford regional, the Gators are still a threat without Drejer, who was a nice player but hardly a superstar. Still, Florida is not as good without him.

Probably none of the best teams are as good as the best teams several years ago. How could they be? The overall talent level has declined, not only to the detriment of the college game but also the NBA, which is spending draft picks on many players who aren’t ready.

“What we’re seeing now is players being named All-American and breaking records, who 15 years ago would have been second-tier players,” Bilas said. “You’ve got guys now who are first-team All-Americans who would have been third-team.”

Not only has the talent been diluted, it has been spread more evenly. Just as in college football, scholarship reductions in college basketball means that players who would have sat on the bench at some big-name school are now playing, and playing well, for programs of lesser reputation — programs that generate upsets during the tournament.

The 3-point shot, to which there is nothing comparable in college football, also has become a great equalizer. “Anybody can hit a 3,” Bilas said.

Yet March Madness remains a phenomenon. While our collective attention span seems to shrink by the day, the tournament sustains our interest over three weeks. Is it the power of the office pool, the grip of bracket fever? And is it better because there are no powerhouses like the UCLA or Houston or Georgetown or Duke teams of yesteryear? CBS analyst and former Seton Hall coach Bill Raftery said that during the UCLA dynasty under John Wooden, he and others wouldn’t even bother showing up for the championship game, so certain were they of the outcome.

“I think people would rather not know who’s going to win,” Raftery said.

Said Bilas: “The game is going to be great regardless of whether kids stay or go.”

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