A few weeks ago I wrote a column suggesting that the NCAA tournament had been damaged by the flight of top talent to the NBA and the diminished quality of play. Throw in plans to potentially expand the tourney from 65 to 96 teams, and it smelled like the networks would be asked to pay more for a watered-down product.
In hindsight, I was more wrong than right about that one.
While those assertions are accurate, the tournament’s elimination format trumps such concerns. Moreover, general mediocrity has in a way helped the event — making it possible for more Cinderellas to advance in the big dance, thus capturing the public’s imagination. It doesn’t matter that Syracuse and Georgetown aren’t the talent-rich powers that they once were, only that lowly Cornell and St. Mary’s — Cornell, for heaven’s sake — got to experience their own version of a “shining moment.” The Wall Street Journal actually reached this conclusion a week ago, in an article headlined, “College Ball’s Talent Deficit (and Why It Doesn’t Matter).”
Ratings have been good, moreover, in keeping with tune-in for such live
events. Yet for all that, CBS caught a break Sunday, when two teams with considerable basketball tradition — Duke and Michigan St. — joined Butler and West Virginia in the Final Four. Granted, the geographic skew still leaves something to be desired — the South and the Midwest, with Butler hailing from the Indianapolis area — but at least a couple of schools that have won it before join those that are just happy to be there.
In short, even diluted and damaged — with teams walking the ball up the court, clanging free throws and shooting well under 50% from the field — the NCAA tournament remains a marquee draw, one that CBS will be hard-pressed to retain, with deep-pocketed ESPN circling the property.
Despite low-scoring games and a dearth of talent thanks to “one and done” players leaping to the pros, the tournament remains a source of high drama. And even if the teams in the “Elite Eight” don’t really appear to live up to that billing anymore, mediocrity hasn’t ruined March Madness.