Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Year Of Meh: Why I'm Having A Hard Time Liking College Basketball This Season

I've said before that I have a relationship with baseball like I would hope to have with my future wife. I love it. I care for it. I oftentimes worry about it, but I hope to grow old with it. Its values and heritage I would hope to pass down to my children so that they can cherish as much as I do.

I've also said that while I'm married to baseball, college basketball is my wild sex kitten of a mistress. It's constantly exciting, a thrill-ride to the very end with constant surprises. You have to be careful with college basketball, however, because if you're aren't paying attention you get burned by the choices you when you fill out your brackets.

Even the dynamics of their rites of passage are similar. The first Friday of the NCAA Tournament has now become the unofficial Adult Spring Break. Many people call out sick, and spend all day cheating on their jobs with the best sporting event in the country: A coast-to-coast, never-ending orgy of Madness.

The NCAA Tournament leads right into the First Day of Baseball when these same respectable men who just called out of work to cheat are now completely honest and forthright about their absence. They just want to take their son out to the ballgame and enjoy the day with their family.

For whatever reason, I'm having a really hard time getting the jones to see my mistress this season. College basketball hasn't really sucked me in the way it normally does. Oh, I'm trying to get into it, believe me. But this season is shaping up like a Keanu Reeves blockbuster: No real discernible plotline, not terribly interesting, but it feels like it should be way better than what it really is.

Specifically, I've nailed down the five reasons college basketball just isn't doing it for me right now.

1. Pitt's Number 1? Seriously?

Head coach Jamie Dixon has done a miraculous job with Pitt basketball ever since Ben Howland left for UCLA. Given the fact that the program is ranked number one for the very first time, one could even argue he's done a better job than Howland ever did while he was in Steeler Country.

But Pitt basketball is like Pitt football. They always seem to be in the Top 25, but never in the Top 10, and certainly never ranked number one. Seeing Pitt at the top of the basketball poll is almost as unseemly as seeing Dave Wannstedt hoisting up the BCS Crystal Ball. The collective public is way more familiar with him looking forlorn on a bench with a porn mustache. The same situation sort of holds true for the basketball team. Looking forlorn on a bench.

Minus the porn mustache, though.

Now, I'm supposed to believe that Pitt basketball is amongst the mightiest teams in the land on par with North Carolina, Connecticut and the ilk? Really? Like Dave Wannstedt winning championships, it just seems like so much of a stretch.

2. No Big-Time Superstars To Get Excited About

Tyler Hansbrough is the all-time leader in points scored at North Carolina! He passed Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Sam Perkins, Vince Carter, Antawn Jamison, and doesn't this make you all so excited! Tyler Hansbrough is so gosh-darn good!

Tyler Hansbrough, sadly, is more the product of being tall and in the right system than he is a great basketball player. According to my handy Rosetta Stone, Hanbrough is Dutch for "Big White Stiff in the NBA next year."

Here's an important key to understanding college basketball. Never let anyone fool you into believing that guard play is the most important part of a college hoops squad. Dick Vitale has squawked about this endlessly for the last ten years in part because of the 1997 Arizona team which featured a three-guard set. In truth, though, the teams that advance the furthest in the NCAA Tournament traditionally have a big-time center leading the way.

Guard play is more important in the NBA than in college basketball due to the fact that in the NBA all the big men are already there. The best guards are the ones who can distribute the ball effectively to the big man (think Steve Nash and Chris Paul). In college basketball, big men are such a premium that oftentimes the team without one simply has no answer to counter the matchup problem. The 2004 Georgia Tech team worked this to perfection using a gangly, red-headed 7-footer named Luke Schenscher to simply overpower everybody else all the way to the NCAA Tournament title game where they lost to Connecticut, and their more imposing big man, Emeka Okafor.

Was Schenscher really any good? Nope, but he created a matchup that the opposition simply couldn't answer.

What does all this mean for Tyler Hansbrough? It means he's taking advantage of a system, not that he's terribly great. Between this revelation and better teams figuring out a way to minimize the shooting touch of Davidson's Stephen Curry, this season really lacks a certain panache. Whether it was Redick-Morrison, Durant-Law, or the Florida Gator squad that won back-to-back titles and became household names in the process, this season just seems devoid of a face or a name or a rivalry that college basketball fans can really embrace.

I mean, I guess the face would be Tyler Hansbrough. But if that's the case, then as the British might say, bloody help us all.

3. Where's the Mid-Majors?

Just scanned the AP Top 25. Gonzaga's not there, but probably will be before the Tournament starts. They played possibly the most difficult schedule in the country and right now their win-loss totals reflect that. But there's no other West Coast Conference schools in the Top 25 either. No Missouri Valley teams. No love for the Colonial Athletic--the conference that gave us tournament darlings like George Mason and UNC Wilmington. Ditto the Mountain West as well. Hell, there's not even a Conference USA squad in the mix like, say, Memphis.

There's only the Horizon League favorites Butler and Atlantic-10 power, the Xavier Muskateers, amongst the mid-majors rustling up the Top 25. And Xavier, frankly, is impossible to take seriously after being trounced by Duke 84-62. The game, honestly, wasn't even that close and the Blue Devils could have won by 40 points easily if they had kept their starters in throughout the game.

One of the beauties of college basketball is, just like the mistress, you have to keep track of everything in order to be successful. This year, unlike past years, there doesn't seem to be any real drama unfolding in the Missouri Valley Conference, a conference that has become so good in recent years that CBS has televised its championship game alongside the Pac-10 and SEC.

Gonzaga has lost some of their luster from past years. One of the Mountain West schools, typically either Utah, BYU or UNLV, makes some noise and a Top 25, if not Top 10 appearance.

This year? Well, where the hell are they? It's entirely possible that as the season goes on into February, we'll really get to know one of these Cinderellas. But for now, the polls are pretty top-heavy towards the favorites, but rather skinny on the mysterious teams still lurking.

4. The Longhorns Suck

Yes, I know this isn't a problem that every college basketball fan has. In fact, I'm guessing fans of all the other Big XII schools are quite glad about this point.

I'm the biggest Texas college hoops fan that anyone knows. I actually worked with Coach Barnes on his radio show when I was an intern for KVET-AM in Austin. He was one of the most gracious people I've ever had the privilege of working with during my tenure in radio. When I worked for ESPN, he rememebered me when I called him up looking for an interview. Nobody remembers the intern.

But Coach Barnes did.

So it absolutely kills me to say what I have to say, but this is one of the most unlikeable teams I can ever remember him having. A.J. Abrams is entirely too streaky of a shooter to be effective over the course of the next few months. They have no dominant big man inside, and it showed when Oklahoma's Blake Griffin just bullied his way in the paint all night long during a nationally televised contest. Gary Johnson still hasn't reached his full potential and Dexter Pittman has been playing like a poor man's Oliver Miller. No, that's not a compliment towards either Pittman or Miller.

And then there's the case of Clear Lake High School's Own Connor Atchley. He's seemingly regressed like a basketball playing Charley from Flowers For Algernon. During the 2007-08 campaign, I remember some serious chatter on Austin sports talk radio about the possibility of Atchley actually playing significant minutes in the NBA.

Now it seems like Atchley is trying just to log significant minutes playing for the Horns. He's lost confidence in his once-trusty outside jump shot. He gets abused down low more often a horde of kids sleeping over at Neverland Ranch. His posture is terrible, and it's almost deja vu to when Kevin Durant was literally slapping him around on the floor during 2006 season for taking bad shots.

It's honestly depressing to watch one of Clear Lake High School's own fall so far after so much promise initially.

Given that the Austin community just embraced one of the most likeable and overachieving Longhorn football teams in recent memory, unless everyone gets their act together quickly, Coach Barnes can pretty much forget about riding Mack Brown's karmic coattails for awhile, and start the rebuilding job immediately.

5. A Serious Lack Of Gus Johnson

I need Gus Johnson the way Bruce Dickinson needs cowbell: More of it and preferably louder.

Johnson, right now, is the best basketball play-by-play man alive and it's not even close. Why CBS doesn't make him the lead anchor for March Madness is unfathomable and downright criminal, honestly. If college basketball is my mistress, then Gus Johnson is the spine-tingling orgasm that screams for more.

As far as I can tell, Gus Johnson was put on Earth by God to do one thing and one thing exclusively. He was put here to make things more exciting, and infinitely more dramatic. If he would like to call a game of grass growing or paint drying, I'm dialed in and watching, listening, living and dying with every last word.

And honestly, I need more of that. That's the joy of college basketball and March Madness. The excitement. The drama. A certain innocence that can only come from overexuberance.

I'm missing that right now from this season. But I know there's still time left.

And sometimes in college basketball, a little bit of time is all you really need.