- Michael Wilbon, Pardon the Interruption co-host
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Luckily for the people who are trying their best to screw it up, college basketball, like professional football, is bulletproof. No amount of bungling, apparently, will make the NCAA men's basketball tournament anything less than irresistible. They can put the wrong teams in (VCU, UAB, USC, Illinois) and keep the right teams out (Virginia Tech, Colorado, Harvard) and the masses keep smiling as they fill out their brackets.
Every year we become further removed from a time when the NCAA tournament was perfect. Warning: This is about to become a rant, where the old man puts down his newspaper, peers over his readers and tells you people how much better this thing was in the old days, which is indisputable when it comes to March Madness.
Don't get me wrong, the tournament might be as compelling as ever if we're judging it by the amount of drama produced. The conditions certainly exist to make it so. Take the top eight teams and the bottom four teams out of the discussion for a second, and that leaves 56 teams that are for the most part indistinguishable. Seriously, you can tell the difference between Wisconsin, a No. 4 seed that couldn't score 40 points in its conference tournament a few days ago, and 12th-seeded Richmond? No, you actually cannot because there is no qualitative difference. There are zero great teams, zero great players. NBA teams are tripping over themselves to trade their first-round picks in 2011 not because of the absolute certainty of a lockout but because they don't think anybody is worth top-of-the-draft money.
While that could very well make for overtimes and buzzer-beaters, a slew of upsets and charming Cinderella stories, it doesn't mean that the quality of play is what it used to be. There's not a team in the tournament as good as Memphis was three years ago. Fortunately for the carnival barkers, 80 percent of the folks in the office pool don't know the difference between exciting and good.
Jay Bilas, the ESPN basketball analyst and Final Four veteran from his playing days at Duke, spoke to this so eloquently in a conversation we had in Bristol on Sunday, then more extensively with Tony Kornheiser and me on "PTI" Monday afternoon. Bilas pointed out that two of the primary stars of this NBA season, presumptive MVP Derrick Rose and double-double machine Kevin Love, would be seniors at Memphis and UCLA, respectively, in another time and place. And Bilas says there are about 60 NBA players who left college with eligibility.
With the best 19- to 21-year-olds gone to the NBA and thereby leaving the college talent pool barely shallow enough to swim in, there aren't as many good college teams as there used to be. And Bilas has the numbers to support his claim. "This year in the NCAA basketball tournament, we have 13 teams with 11 or more losses," he said. "Thirteen teams, and that's in the at-large pool. These are the ones invited [as opposed to winning automatic bids]. That's the most ever. We've got five teams that have 14 losses. In the history of the tournament, since it went to 64 teams in 1985, we've had six of those [14-loss teams] invited. From 1985 to 2010 we had six, and now we've got five this year? This is the weakest field we've ever had ... by far.
"Now, it doesn't mean we're not going to have a great tournament; I think it could be an even better tournament than we normally have because it'll be volatile and it'll be fun to watch. The competition still is going to be great. But the quality of play is not what it has been. We've still got outstanding players; we don't have the tremendous superstars that are older that we used to have."
Bilas continued, "This is something the basketball community, the NBA included, is going to have to put its arms around because it's not just hurting the college game; it's hurting the NBA, too ... and the NBA product could be even better than it is, and right now I think it's outstanding."
Bilas concludes, insightfully and rationally, that the college game is on the verge of trouble -- not in trouble, but staring at it. The early flight from college to the NBA and the unfortunate influence of AAU basketball has given us a half-generation of kids who know more about marketing than how to actually play the game. And as Bilas correctly observes, both the college and pro games are suffering because of it.
Just because the Big East and Big Ten put a bunch of teams in the field doesn't mean the tourney is better. In fact, it's silly that of the, say, 35 teams that have a reasonable chance to reach the Sweet 16, 18 of them will be from the Big Ten or Big East. The only development worse than that is increasing the field from 65 to 68 teams.
One play-in game was sorta cute. It was novel and was a nice little appetizer before the big meal was served on Thursday. Three play-in games is a nuisance. It makes filling out brackets for the office pool more difficult. Worse yet, several of the teams (UAB, VCU, USC) don't belong in the field. It's embarrassing that grown adults paid to make important decisions on intercollegiate athletics could put these teams in the tournament ahead of Virginia Tech and Harvard. More play-in games are as unnecessary as an 18-game NFL season.
It's not to suggest that Clemson, if the Tigers beat UAB, can't take West Virginia in a first-round game. That's entirely doable because a No. 5 seed like West Virginia could get to the Final Four or lose its first game. I could see Pitt, the No. 1 seed in the Southeast, losing to Old Dominion or Butler in the second round. (Time for another rant: I don't care how the NCAA wants to label things, but Thursday and Friday games are still the first round, and this weekend's games are the second round.)
No great teams and no great players make the tournament awfully democratic. If NBA talent evaluators are talking about using the first pick in the draft on a 6-foot kid who barely played (Duke's Kyrie Irving) then we know Bilas isn't exaggerating when he says things have changed in recent seasons.
Don't get me wrong, I'm all-in for some potential second-round matchups, including BYU versus St. John's, Georgetown versus Purdue, Xavier versus Syracuse. I want to see if Jimmer Fredette has a flair for the moment, if Michigan State can put aside a disastrous regular season and turn it on like a professional team in the postseason, if Kemba Walker and UConn could possibly have anything left in their legs after that preposterous five-day run in the Big East tournament, whether Butler is the new Gonzaga.
But I'm not expecting the game to look like it did in the 1980s and early 1990s when the really good teams like Michael Jordan's Tar Heels, Patrick Ewing's Hoyas, Chris Mullin's Redmen, Christian Laettner's Blue Devils and Tark's Runnin' Rebels had multiple All-Americans, multiple player-of-the-year candidates, juniors and seniors and -- get this -- redshirt players who stuck around for four, maybe even five years ... long enough to actually learn how to play the game.
Exciting is good, good and exciting is compelling. And right now it looks like this NCAA tournament, even at its best, will have to settle for the former.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.
The NCAA tournament might be as compelling as ever if we're judging it by the amount of drama produced. But every year we become further removed from a time when March Madness was perfect.