- The Washington Times - Monday, March 28, 2005

It gets no better than Louisville vs. West Virginia and Illinois vs. Arizona.

It gets no better than the two favorites rallying from improbable deficits, only to avert elimination in overtime.

Those two heart-stopping outcomes underline the special appeal of the NCAA tournament. It is not just about two those games, of course. It is about how the tournament is littered with victorious underdogs, unlikely comebacks and game-winning shots each March. It is the raw emotion that pulls on the basketball-loving public in a way that the professional game cannot duplicate.

The single-elimination element is the substance that flames the passion.

There would be no Vermont in a best-of-seven series. The stronger team, Syracuse in that case, would come out on top in the NBA format. There would be no Texas Tech and no re-emergence of Bob Knight. There would be no West Virginia.

Yet for one game, 40 minutes, an underequipped college basketball team is obligated to believe in the impossible. It is the oft-repeated story of the tournament. It is the story of N.C. State in 1983 and Villanova in 1985. It is the story that has gained even more sustenance in the last decade with the proliferation of blue-chip prospects going straight to the NBA ranks from high school.

What this tournament reveals is the shrinking gap between the haves and have-nots in college basketball. The major conference schools still rule and probably always will. But their margin for error in a given game against a mid-major conference school is hardly what it was a generation ago.

An unmistakable air of parity has descended over college basketball, which has only heightened the drama of its tournament.

To put it another way, there are no more Patrick Ewing-like forces in the tournament, no Michael Jordan types, no Fab Five and no well-seasoned UNLV of the early ‘90s stuffed with so many future NBA players.

Andrew Bogut, the 6-foot-10 Australian with Utah, was considered the premier player of the tournament, the one with the most NBA potential, possibly the No.1 pick overall this June.

Bogut is a hard-working, hard-nosed player who might have been earmarked for the middle of the first round a generation ago. The determination to be the best means a lot, but you better have the requisite athletic package to go with it.

Even when the favorite has prevailed against a lesser-known team, it sometimes has been forged with a sigh of relief at the end, with the recognition that the outcome might have been different with another basket here or there or another loose ball or two.

This NCAA tournament is showing that less is more. There may be no more legendary players of yesteryear, no one who makes you sit up and say, “That guy is going to be a monster in the NBA.”

But there are more and more games that hold you to the end, regardless of whether you have a vested interest in the outcome, aside from it delivering your good-theater fix.

More than ever, the NCAA tournament peddles great theater and great coaches instead of great basketball. It peddles the painted faces in the stands, the school bands, the spirit of the cheerleaders and the elated and crestfallen at the end.

As gripping as it was for Louisville and Illinois to rally from the dead, neither comeback would have been completed without the glut of bonehead plays by West Virginia and Arizona.

Is there a future NBA All-Star in this tournament? There could be. If so, it is someone who remains in the early stages of his development, someone who does not rise to the level of no-brainer, a la Tim Duncan in 1997.

Duncan is the last of those from the tournament.

Not too long ago, it was feared the high school-to-NBA player rush would undermine the tournament. It has done just the opposite.

The sports public is not drawn to the tournament because of the quality of the basketball. It is drawn to the event’s competitiveness, the do-or-die proposition and the supposition that even the tiny can live large.

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