Sunday, March 27, 2005

Is College Hoops' Brand Losing Its Magic?

Selena Roberts makes an interesting point, but I wonder if she wrote her column before yesterday's great games between Louisville and West Virginia on the one hand and then the grand finale between Arizona and Illinois. Both were outstanding games, regional finals for the ages (in case you've been camping in the desert or climbing a remote mountain, Louisville overcame a 20-point deficit to defeat in OT a WVA team that shot 55% for the game and was unconscious from behind the arc, and Illinois was down 15 with about 3:45 to go before rallying to defeat Arizona in OT). Two regional finals, two overtime games. Great theater.

Selena Roberts' thesis is that college basketball's brand could be in danger, not because of the success of the Bucknells and Vermonts but because of the erosion of the elite programs' stranglehold on the summit of college basketball. She does note the irony that the trademarks of certain coaches, including Coach K, have gotten stronger during the time that she has perceived the erosion of the summit (no pun intended there).

Let's examine a few elements of major college basketball:

1. Bad fact #1: the HS superstars aren't going to college anymore. About seven of them went straight to the NBA draft last year, including one, Shaun Livingston, who was headed to Duke. The pundits contend, and I believe rightly so, that most of these kids would go to the top programs. Okay, so the elite programs get hurt here.

2. Bad fact #2: many outstanding players leave college early for the NBA. It's almost like the baseball draft, in that if you stay for your senior year and you're an elite player there's something wrong with you (go tell that to USC QB Matt Leinart, though). Needless to say, some elite programs get hurt when their superstars or future stars leave early. Witness Duke, again, when Elton Brand, Corey Magette and Will Avery left after the same season several years ago. Brand was justified in going; he had nothing more to prove. Magette is a tremendous talent who could have benefitted staying in college for at least one more year. Avery, well, his forwarding address is "parts unknown." Do those departures hurt the elite programs' potential for perennial hegemony? Yes, they do.

Okay, so if you're into dynasties, these facts are bad. These facts mean that those on college basketball's Mount Rushmore -- Duke, Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas, Indiana, UCLA, for starters -- won't dominate year-in and year-out. And that worries some, including Coach K, that the brand of DI men's hoops might be eroding. And, if you look at it from Coach K's point of view, it might be. After all, perenially jinxed Gary Williams and Jim Boeheim, the best coaches never to win a national title, won national titles, and their programs, schools and coaching ability were sometimes questioned; in other words, some thought that these guys would never win a national title because they weren't good enough. After all, if you're talking ACC, you should be talking Duke and Carolina, and if you're talking Big East, you should be talking UConn (and, in former years, St. John's, Villanova and, of course, Georgetown). Or so that's how the logic goes.

That's certainly one point of view. But I think that an analogy to the NFL and not the NBA should comfort college basketball purists. I do think that the NBA is reeling because the salary/personnel structure is so out of whack that the rivalries among the 76ers, Knicks and Celtics, not to mention the Lakers, are so damaged that most young fans forget the salad days. That hurts the brand, because the rivalries are rather shallow if they exist at all. But few can argue that the NFL has been damaged despite the absence of the Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers or San Francisco 49ers dynasties. Parity in the NFL means that no team is more than say a few drafts away from going from the outhouse to the penthouse. That aspect, to many, makes the NFL very exciting. And, to boot, a dynasty has slipped into the equation -- the New England Patriots. Moreover, there are intra-conference and intra-division rivalries that still get the players' and fans' blood boiling -- Raiders-Chiefs, anyone in the NFC East, anyone in the NFC North, Jets-Dolphins, Jets-Patriots, you name it, the great rivalries are still hot, the same way the great rivalries in college hoops are still cooking. With gas.

Look, no one team may be dominating college hoops, but the titans are still guarding the summit very carefully. If you want to win a national title, you still have to get through the legendary programs to get there, the Dukes, Carolinas, Kentuckys, Connecticuts, Syracuses. Yes, some have had their fortunes wane -- UCLA, Georgetown, St. John's, Indiana -- to name a few, but several have sustained their excellence. Still, if you look at the Elite 8, you have a pretty good group of programs there.

Of course, if you're more concerned about the erosion of the dynasties, then you should urge the NCAA to adopt a playoff format for the men that is similar to that they hold for the women -- where the games in the first two rounds are played at the site of one of the top seeds. A look at the Sweet 16 in the women's bracket reveals very few upsets, with only 1 seed lower than a #6 advancing to the Sweet 16 -- #13 Liberty. Of the 16 teams who advanced, I believe there were 4 #1 seeds, 4 #2 seeds, 3 #3 seeds, 2 #4 seeds, 2 #5 seeds and 1 #13 seed. If you want dynasties, there's your format.

It's just that few, even relatively speaking, get as excited about the women's bracket as the men's bracket from the get-go of the tournament. The reason -- the Rounds of 64 and 32 encompass the American Dream of rags to riches. You want Rockefellers and Gettys solidifying their turf -- go to the women's bracket.

I think that the brand of men's DI hoops is doing just fine. The games are exciting, and more teams have a chance. Sure, that might mean trouble for Duke, Carolina, Kentucky and Kansas, but whoever preordained that they should win the title every year?

The Big Ten was oft-maligned this year (and I jumped on the conference as well) because most thought that the once very tough conference had turned cupcake-like and had only one bonafide tournament team that could go far -- Illinois (Wisconsin being a nice team and Michigan State being a mystery). Yet, as I write this, Wisconsin is trailing Carolina by 1 late in the game and Michigan State faces off against Kentucky later today. If Wisconsin pulls off the upset and Michigan State beats Kentucky, you'll have three teams from the same conference in the Final Four (the last time I remember that happening was 1985, when Villanova, Georgetown and St. John's were in the Final Four). Would that mean that college basketball has a brand problem?

Hardly. It just may mean that the Dukes, Carolinas, Kansases and Kentuckys would.

At least temporarily.

Could it be that the store brands are replacing the name brands?

Or is it that new name brands are emerging?

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