By Mike Bruu, TSB Sports Editor
On Monday night, the college basketball season officially came to an end as the Louisville Cardinals were anointed the national champions after an impressive win versus Michigan. After the confetti guns made Louisville’s head coach Rick Pitino duck for cover and CBS announcer Jim Nantz made his final appearance before sprinting to Augusta National, the network showed the One Shining Moment highlight montage.
For those unfamiliar to this time-honored tradition, CBS shows a three-minute clip that is supposed to capture all the magical moments of the NCAA tournament. Seeing shots of Florida Gulf Coast celebrating its trip to the Sweet 16 and watching the Louisville teammates hold the hand of Kevin Ware as he lay on the court with a broken leg, it is supposed to be something to grab us emotionally and make us remember the last three weeks forever.
I must admit that I did not watch the national championship game or the One Shining Moment montage live. I was attending a Texas Ranger game at the Ballpark in Arlington, but I knew after watching the highlights that night I had missed a pretty good ballgame. So after going over the game and the postgame theatrics, I began to reflect on my viewing experience of the tournament the past three weeks.
Obviously the highlight has to be my adventure to Jerry Land to watch the Sweet 16 action a few weeks ago. Watching Trey Burke shoot a virtual half-court shot to propel the Michigan Wolverines to the Elite Eight in a win over Kansas was the best game I had ever witnessed in person. Also seeing the “Cinderalla” Florida Gulf Coast Eagles play in the first regional semifinal game as a No. 15 seed was pretty awesome, despite losing to their big in-state brother Florida.
But with the addition of a couple early games from the opening weekend, my general consensus is that March lacked some serious madness this year. In fact, this was the worst tournament I had watched in the 10 years I have been basketball conscious.
None of the Elite Eight games were very good. A lot of early games saw teams in single digits with less than 10 minutes to go in the first half! And most importantly, there was no real dominant team that made you and your friends have to stop down for and make sure you check the game out.
When Mr. College Basketball himself, Dick Vitale, says the tournament has been unwatchable at times after watching the Elite Eight games last week, you know the sport is in a bit of trouble. From the overly physical play where the defensive player can pretty much tackle the man with the ball, to the offenses that insist on taking 25 of the 35 second shot clock before running a play, college hoops has become so difficult to watch.
According to Sports Media Watch, 606 of the 678 games on CBS, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, and NBC Sports Network had a rating of less than 1.0. In fact, only six games from Nov. 9 to Mar. 10 had a rating of 2.0 or higher. College basketball games averaged 508,000 viewers on the ESPN family of networks, and the conference that had the most rated games on the year was the Big 10, averaging around 2.0 in the top-10.
There was a time when my friends and I were tuned into college basketball quite religiously. I was always a University of Texas guy, so watching T.J. Ford control the floor or LaMarcus Alridge control the paint and make ridiculous dunks was a part of my weekly routine during the winters throughout middle school. When Kevin Durant took over the college basketball world in 2006-07, I didn’t miss one of his games that season. Even though I knew he was probably never placing a foot on campus as a sophomore, I loved watching him play the game of basketball.
In middle school and the early years of high school, my friends and I all had a Texas college that we pledged allegiance to no matter what. Whether it was Texas, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, or even Baylor, weekday rivalry games would be watched thoroughly that night and would force us to come back to school the next day with our in-depth analysis.
Today, I can’t stand to watch the Longhorns play basketball. Quite frankly, I can’t stand to watch any team play college basketball. Filling out my bracket this season was a crapshoot, as I am pretty sure I would have done better picking mascots or cool uniforms than doing any research. And I am not the only person to feel this way in today’s world. Sports talk show hosts have ranted about it for the last few weeks. Columnists have written about the poor play since early November. NBA scouting directors are calling the 2013 draft class the worst in decades.
Even attendance at campuses is steadily declining, according to a USA Today article by Steve Wieberg. Wieberg said that to his calculations, the six biggest-name conferences – Atlantic Coast, Big East, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, and Southeastern – had a collective drop in attendance of almost 6% in the previous four years, ending in 2011-12.
Wieberg notes several reasons for this apparent lack of interest, citing anything from improved technology to watch the games from home to one-and-done players to NCAA scandals. For those who have lost interest in the sport, each person has their own reason for not watching the games.
After spending months trying to figure out my reason, it finally hit me. The reason I don’t care about the game is because the state of college basketball in Texas is atrocious. For the first time since 1977, Selection Sunday came and went without one Texas team hearing their name called to play in the NCAA tournament. Yes, congratulations to the Baylor Bears on winning the NIT Tournament, but winning the NIT is like winning the JV championship when your varsity team didn’t make the playoffs. The trophy looks really nice, but no one gives a you-know-what at the end of the day.
Even the Southland Conference regular season champion Stephen F. Austin (27-4) couldn’t make the “Big Dance,” after the Lumberjacks lost in the tournament championship game. Baylor was the closest to making the tourney as an at-large big, but a first-round loss in the Big 12 tournament to Oklahoma State ended the Bears hopes.
Texas A&M finished 18-15 in the first year as a SEC school and needed to make a remarkable run in the conference tourney to find a automatic berth to the dance. SMU and TCU finished 26-38 combined, records that didn’t shock too many folks around the area. In the Big 12, Texas Tech (11-20) and Texas (16-17) finished under .500, with the Longhorns capping off their painful year with a first-round loss to Houston in the College Basketball Invitational (the tournament below the NIT).
It was just three years ago that the state of Texas matched the NCAA record by sending seven teams to the tourney. The state had sent at least three schools each of the last six years, while Texas holds the record with 23 schools that have appeared in the tournament from one state.
This speaks volumes on the level of play on several fronts. One, it shows that the talent at these schools simply isn’t there. Despite getting “passing” grades from scouting sites about the latest recruiting classes, either the players don’t pan out or the player leaves after one year to bolt for the NBA money.
Second, the high school talent in this state no longer wants to stay home. In the 2013 ESPN 100 recruits, there are three players from Texas in the top-10. Julius Randle from Prestonwood Christian Academy and brothers Andrew and Aaron Harrison from Travis High School all chose not to stay in state to play ball, but head to the mecca for going one-and-done in college ball: Kentucky.
Why would Randle accept the Longhorns offer, where he would have to help a rebuilding process for the first year or two, when he could go play under John Calipari, be in the National Championship hunt, then take off to go spend a few years in Toronto or Charlotte after being a NBA lottery pick?
You have to go to No. 29 on the ESPN 100 recruits list to find the first player to sign at a Texas school. Instead of it being Texas or Baylor, Saint John Bosco’s Issac Hamilton will play his college ball at the University of Texas-El Paso. Just to really make my point, the University of Texas and Rhode Island each have one signee in the ESPN Top 100. I didn’t even know Rhode Island was still a state.
When you think college basketball, you think of Indiana, Kentucky, Louisville. You think of John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins. You think of the Big East and the ACC. You think of North Carolina-Duke on Tobacco Road. You think of the Kansas Jayhawks and Allen Fieldhouse.
You never hear someone’s first answer be about the great Longhorn teams or that really awesome Texas A&M game. No one says you have to check out a Baylor basketball game before you die. No one declares that a Texas Tech game on Saturday night will change the way you view college sports.
Maybe that is part of the problem too. Despite producing great high school talent, having solid facilities, and big universities with big athletic budgets, the passion for college hoops just isn’t here. We will always be a football state, but the gap between the gridiron and the hardwood has expanded further than it has in quite some time. Maybe it will take another Kevin Durant to roll through Texas to engage the Lone Star State sports fan again. Maybe it will take amending the one-and-done rule where fans can actually take the time to learn the player’s name before he is gone for the riches of the NBA. Maybe rule changes that allow a more offensive friendly game will have teams in double digits by the 10 minute mark in the first half.
But more than likely, more people like myself will be looking back at March Madness with great disappointment, wondering if they will even watch at all next spring. For those who love the game of basketball, it is a very dark time to be a college hoops fan in Texas indeed.