- The Washington Times - Monday, March 21, 2011

Would someone please remind me again of the problem with college basketball? I recall some consternation between Selection Sunday and opening-round action in the NCAA tournament, but it’s fuzzy.

Wait, it’s starting to come back. ESPN’s Jay Bilas was among a chorus complaining that the NBA’s early-entry rule harmed college basketball via a talent drain. And to prove that he’s not self-centered as a college hoops analyst, Bilas proposed a change (three-year commitments out of high school) that he says is in the NBA’s best interest.

And, oh yeah, I remember ESPN’s Dick Vitale being among a slew of shriekers who blasted Viirginia Commonwealth’s inclusion in the tournament. Judging by the howls, you’d think VCU’s intramural champion was chosen instead of the team headed to the Sweet 16.

Yes, there were plenty of dogs in the tournament from a historical perspective, three more than necessary thanks to the bloated bracket. The field set records for the most 11-loss teams, most 13-loss teams and most 14-loss teams; there were five teams in the latter category, one fewer than the total since 1985.

But nothing that happened during the first two rounds - I refuse to play along with the “First Four” nonsense - suggests that college basketball or this glorious tournament is suffering.

Like the rest of us, it’s simply evolving and adapting as best it can, doing a fine job facing changes beyond its control.

Fans don’t have the same attention span as generations past. And superstars don’t have the same patience. Combine our myriad entertainment options with their penchant for one-and-done, and you get diminished national interest in the regular season. With fewer Derrick Roses and John Walls staying for sophomore seasons after so much attention as March Madness freshmen, college basketball as a whole builds no momentum.

But, thankfully, the tournament generates its own momentum from the start each year. If faithful viewers are dwindling from November through February, left to watch the dwindling ranks of elite players, so be it.

Everyone else returns en masse when the brackets are set, and the tournament consistently delivers drama, excitement and raw emotion.

Take this year for example. Of the 32 first-round games, eight were decided by three or fewer points. George Mason, Butler, Kentucky, Temple and mighty Morehead State survived on go-ahead scores in the thrilling closing seconds. The wild, wild Southwest featured seeds No. 9 to 13 advancing to the second round.

In the 16 games played Saturday and Sunday, five were decided by three or fewer points, with Duke, North Carolina, Marquette, Arizona and Butler - again - winning on dramatic shots in the final tense ticks. And San Diego State needed double overtime to reach the Sweet 16, where five teams are seeded eighth or higher.

We used to think the tournament was just about perfect, but now we know better. Thanks to CBS joining forces with Turner Sports, we’ve been privy to an unparalleled, unprecedented hoops nirvana. Being transfixed as we clutch remotes and click between four games makes us more sedentary and less productive as a nation. But we sure do love it.

CBS and Turner must feel likewise about their 14-year, $10.8 billion contract for the tournament’s broadcast, Internet and wireless rights. TV ratings for Thursday’s games, up by 24 percent compared with last year’s first-day action, were the highest since 1991. Through the first weekend, the ratings are tied with 1993 and 1991 as the tournament’s best, up by 17 percent from last year.

Bilas is correct in noting the majority of our best college-age players aren’t, uh, in college, which results in teams not as deep and play not as stellar.

Rose, Blake Griffin, O.J. Mayo, Michael Beasley, Kevin Love and Eric Gordon would be seniors (yeah, right) had they stuck around. Tyreke Evans and former Georgetown star Greg Monroe would be juniors. The sophomore class would include Derrick Favors and four Kentucky Wildcats: Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton.

Get over it. Most players of that ilk will continue to bolt as soon as they’re able, as well they should - but that’s a subject for another day.

Instead of bemoaning their absence, or complaining about a VCU being invited at the expense of a Colorado, let’s just enjoy what we have.

Warts and all, it’s still great.

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