NCAA renaissance peaks with great weekend

I keep hearing the same points from readers over and over again:

• I can't remember enjoying March Madness as much as I've enjoyed it this year.

• Are the games particularly good this year or is it just me?

• I can't remember enjoying college hoops this much since the early '90s.

Look, I'm with you. I bailed on college hoops once high schoolers started jumping to the NBA and every All-American seemed to be fleeing for the NBA one year too early. When I was growing up, college teams stayed together for three-four years (like Georgetown and St. John's in the mid-'80s, or Duke and UNLV in the early '90s). Once that continuity was removed, the quality of the product declined and bottomed out with a disaster of a 2005-06 season that featured two astounding realities:

1. Two white guys (Adam Morrison and J.J. Redick) were indisputably the two best college basketball players alive.

2. George Mason made the Final Four.

One year later? Everything's OK. The quality of play has been remarkable, culminating in Sunday's Georgetown-UNC classic, an electric game that also happened to be exceptionally well played (at least until UNC fell apart near the end). If you love basketball, you were legitimately thrilled like me. Which raises the question ... what's happening here? Is the 2006-07 season an aberration or something more?

The answer: It's a little of both. Follow me through the maze here:

• Everything started with the NBA's decision to ban high schoolers from its draft. If that didn't happen, Kevin Durant and Greg Oden would have skipped college and so many casual fans wouldn't have been sucked in. The sport just FELT bigger because of them. Even though Durant's Texas team got knocked out in Round 2, you can't understate Oden's impact over this past week -- not just the block at the end of the Tennessee game, or the way he decimated Memphis over the last 10 minutes on Saturday, but the palpable excitement (already in motion and it's only Monday) for his battle against Georgetown's Roy Hibbert next weekend. None of this happens without the NBA passing that rule.

• The Florida guys (specifically Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer) decided to return to defend their title. This just wasn't happening over the past 10 years -- teams would win a title and their best guys would flee to the pros. Sure, Florida features three lottery picks, but they're fun to watch because they trust each other, they have an extra gear and they enjoy playing with one another. Those three traits only manifest themselves over time. On a lesser scale, you could say the same about UCLA -- from last year's NCAA runner-up, only Jordan Farmar jumped to the pros and everyone else stuck around (including its best player, Arron Afflalo). Was that one of the reasons they threw the basketball equivalent of a perfect game at a more talented Kansas team on Saturday? Actually, yeah. That and the coaching matchup.

• The one fluke of this season: An inordinate number of good point guards. I mention this every February when they screw up the NBA All-Star Game rosters, but it's worth mentioning again here: Basketball games are only as good as the guys running the game, whether it's the NBA or NCAA, high school, intramurals, pickup, playground, you name it. For whatever reason, we were blessed with an overflow of quality point guards this season, including ...

OSU's Mike Conley Jr. (one of the 10 best college players in the country right now), UCLA's Darren Collison (its most underrated player), UNC's Ty Lawson (the fastest guy in college), Texas A&M's Acie Law IV (the lefty Cassell), Texas' D.J. Augustin (hit-or-miss, but always interesting), Oregon's Aaron Brooks (an explosive 6-footer), Georgetown's Jessie Sapp (a natural 2-guard who learned how to run that Hoyas offense), Kansas' Mario Chalmers and BC's Tyrese Rice (two shoot-first point guards who knew how to push the pace), USC's Gabriel Pruitt and Florida's Taurean Green (not superstars, but guys who know what they're doing), and VCU's Eric Maynor (the sleeper of the bunch who made a name for himself in the Duke upset).

Is there an explanation for the previous paragraph? Other than luck, no. But it's worth mentioning that seven of those guys played in the Elite Eight this weekend. It's also worth mentioning that, other than Brooks and Law (both seniors), there's a decent chance that everyone in the previous paragraph could return to college next season. This is a good thing. We're also getting Eric Gordon, Indiana's superstar recruit who's already drawing comparisons to Oscar Robertson. Anyway, I think we're in good shape next season, even without Oden and Durant.

• Along those same lines, I'm make the following bold statement: The more talent you have in a sport, the better that sport will be.

We'll always remember that UNC-Georgetown game from 1982 not just because of the last 30 seconds, but because Patrick Ewing, Sleepy Floyd, Sam Perkins, James Worthy AND Michael Jordan were involved. Maybe there wasn't as much star power in the 2007 rematch, but Jeff Green, Roy Hibbert, Ty Lawson and Brandan Wright could end up being top-12 picks three months from now; Tyler Hansbrough should crack the top 20; and we're not even mentioning Wayne Ellington (one year away from being a prime-time player) or the three Georgetown perimeter guys (Sapp, Wallace and Summers) who shot a combined 19-for-30 on Sunday. With the exception of Wright (who probably would have entered last year's NBA draft under the old rules), that's just good fortune to have so many quality players in the same Elite Eight game. And over everything else, that's why you'll be flicking channels 35 years from now and stumbling across that game on ESPN Classic. You know, assuming it's one of the three days of the year they aren't showing a 24-hour poker marathon.

Anyway, with two No. 1 seeds and two No. 2 seeds staying alive in a loaded college basketball season, we're headed for the most exciting Final Four since '99 with UConn (Rip Hamilton, Jake Voskuhl and Khalid El-Amin), Duke (Shane Battier, Corey Maggette, Elton Brand, Trajan Langdon), Ohio State (Scoonie Penn and Michael Redd) and Michigan State (Mateen Cleaves and Mo Peterson). From a talent standpoint, there's no comparison between then and now: This year's quartet features a future No. 1 pick and franchise center (Oden), six future lottery picks (Oden, Conley, Noah, Horford, Brewer, Green and Hibbert), two more potential first rounders (Afflalo and Collison), two elite college players with a knack for coming up big when it matters (Georgetown's Wallace and OSU's Ron Lewis), three superb coaches (Thompson, Florida's Billy Donovan and UCLA's Ben Howland, who pulled Bill Self's pants down on Saturday) and quality point guards on all four teams. You'd have to travel back to '93 (when three No. 1 seeds and a No. 2 seed made it, including Michigan's Fab Five team) to find this much talent and this many subplots in the Final Four.

So to answer the original question: I'd say it's half luck (an inordinate number of good players for whatever reason), one-quarter circumstance (a high number of good players staying in school) and one-quarter the NBA (banning high schoolers from the draft). But you can't discount good luck. You just can't. For instance, in a two-year span from 1984 to 1985, the following rookies entered the NBA: Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin, Sam Perkins, Detlef Schrempf, Xavier McDaniel, Charles Oakley, Joe Dumars, Alvin Robertson, Otis Thorpe, Kevin Willis, A.C. Green, Wayman Tisdale, Jerome Kersey and Terry Porter. There was no rhyme or reason to this. It just happened. You could say the same about what's happening in college basketball right now.

All I know is this: Saturday's games (Florida-UCLA and OSU-Georgetown) are appointment viewing for anyone who ever gave a crap about basketball. When's the last time you could say something like that about the Final Four? I'm giddy.

And on that note, let's hand it over to the readers:

Kyle H., Herrin, Ill.: "Can we get Fox to do a March Madness special edition of 'Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?' Get Rick Barnes, Bill Self, Thad Matta, Paul Hewitt, Roy Williams. Ask them basic coaching questions, like, 'Do you foul under 10 seconds when you are up three?' or 'Do you call a timeout between free throw shots of your own player?' My money is on the fifth graders."

Brandon in L.A.: "Hey Bill, you more than anyone do a great job of calling out coaches that are killing their teams. So along those lines, how has Bill Self gone under the radar all year with you and ESPN? This should be the running subplot of this tourney. He almost single-handedly blew their chances on Thursday. Everyone knew what type of team Southern Illinois is and yet he has no counter to them and his teams are always ill-prepared. How do you not spread things out and isolate your quicker guards who also have a size advantage? And read his postgame quotes -- he says that Southern Illinois is a team you can't run plays against. What??? As you would agree (and I've been preaching all year), Kansas is by far the most talented team in this tourney. Hands down. Yet Bill Self is terrible at game planning and preparation. Look at his past tourney flameouts at Illinois and Kansas with ridiculous talent. If Howland were coaching them, they'd be destroying everyone. UCLA has half the talent as Kansas and yet will probably win Saturday because of game plan and execution. This topic has to start being covered and you are the man to do that."

(Important note: We received this e-mail on Friday. Thought that was funny. By the way, I will always be outraged that Kansas didn't make the Final Four with THAT much talent. It's absurd. Remind me never to pick Bill Self to win a title ever again.)

Justin in Brooklyn, N.Y.: "After watching Oden refuse to even crack a smile after OSU's incredible comeback on Thursday, I finally figured out how to best describe his temperament: he's like a less jovial Tim Duncan."

Chris S. in Albany, N.Y.: "I am convinced the DJ from the Bada Bing killed the guy who usually DJs the NCAA Tournament and took over for the games in New Jersey. I am watching the Georgetown vs. Vanderbilt game here and Buck Cherry's 'Crazy Bitch' was just the song that took us to commercial."

Edsel in L.A.: "How can Billy Packer possibly say that Taj Gibson's fifth foul wasn't a questionable call? He's right that it wasn't questionable if he meant that it was unquestionably terrible and incorrect. You don't make that call EVER, especially not with a minute left to foul a team's go-to guy out. Granted, the officials didn't make SC go completely dead when Taj went out with his fourth, but at least there was a chance to make it interesting. Add that to the Jeff Green travel, the Greg Oden intentional, and the three points they took away from SIU against Kansas with the shot-clock violation and the goaltending. Didn't completely determine the outcome of each game, but it just seems a little fishy to me."

(Put it this way: There were an inordinate amount of bad calls over the past few days, but the second half of the USC-UNC game took the cake. When Packer excoriated Tim Floyd for getting a technical in the final minute on Friday night after the Gibson call, I was thinking the opposite -- I felt like Floyd didn't go far enough. He should have taken off his clothes and thrown them on the court. That was ridiculous. Did we ever figure out why UNC got so many calls this month? How could a physical game like Georgetown-UNC feature a 25-5 FT disparity at one point? That's impossible!)

Swim from Youngstown, Ohio: "Do you think that during commercial breaks, Len Elmore just stares at James Brown in disbelief for two minutes?"

Tom from Medfield: "I'm a huge Georgetown fan and had to put the mute on CBS during the Georgetown/Vanderbilt game tonight because of Billy Packer's relentless negativity. He's like a real life Debbie Downer. I guess my question is -- what would be your choice of music to watch college basketball to with Billy Packer on mute? Are there good albums for this purpose? Or an iTunes playlist? I need to know for this weekend."

(Tom, we're addressing this tomorrow.)

From T. Koutlas in Iraq: "Currently I am a surgeon at the 399th Combat Support Hospital in Tikrit, Iraq. I read your recent links to some O.J. Mayo stories and had to comment. See, I meet American kids O.J. Mayo's age every day here. I take care of them at the hospital here after they have been injured. I see them in the dining facility before they go out on a mission. I pass them at the gym. They are, without fail, polite and respectful. They go out every day and get shot at or have their vehicles blown up by IEDs. They don't get paid millions -- they volunteered to be here, like we all did. They make me feel very good about the future of our country. Then I read the story of O.J. Mayo's 'recruitment' by USC and am utterly disgusted. Trust me, I love sports, so do all the soldiers over here. But it gets to a point you have to ask yourself, what are these athletes doing to really earn all the money and respect they crave? When throwing a basketball off the backboard and dunking against a bunch of high school kids is the highlight of your life, you don't deserve honor and respect. You deserve pity."

Thaddeus in San Diego: "Isn't the college basketball rule of not having the opportunity to advance the ball with a timeout in the last few seconds the stupidest rule ever? For every Christian Laettner there's 500 games like the end of regulation in the Georgetown-UNC game today. Can we change this please?

Jared in Arizona: "I am a firm believer that Thad Matta intentionally designed his offense specifically so Greg Oden wouldn't develop his game and thus he stays for a year, maybe more. Think about it. The only time that Oden has been involved this year is on the offensive glass. He'll either go out and set the high pick and then roll, looking for the offensive rebound, or he will have single coverage on the block and won't get the ball. He'll just try and get the offensive rebound after another 3-point shot. Greg Oden has even said he's not ready to make the jump because he can't post up as good as he thinks he should. Well how is he going to improve when nobody's giving him the ball? This is what Matta wanted to happen and Greg Oden has paid the price for it. Actually we all paid the price for it. How does Thad Matta explain not giving the ball to Greg Oden when he's being guarded by one 6-7 guy? Thad Matta has lost serious karma points for this ingenious trick he has put on Oden."

Jon in Michigan: "Apparently after regulation of the Georgetown game, Roy Williams took a crash course in the Rick Barnes School of Coaching. Someone should tell Roy that they give him extra timeouts in overtime and that he is allowed to use them when the other team goes on a run and your team can't hit anything."

Annette B. in Ann Arbor, Mich.: "I am not a huge basketball fan, but I was watching the UNC/Georgetown game with my husband. I confidently predicted that UNC would lose after I saw their uniforms. You know how I knew? They have writing on their butts. Seriously, look at them. What is this, the women's tournament? Are they in a sorority? What gives? Did Jordan have writing on his butt? There's no way."

Robert F. in Florida: "Is John Thompson III the first son of a legendary coach to be clearly superior to his father? Usually, the results are embarrassing, like David and Mike Shula or Ray Meyer's kid. But this G-town team has an efficient half-court offense and shows great poise at crunch time. The coaching mismatch in yesterday's Gtown-UNC game may have been the most glaring in a big game since Guy Lewis/Valvano. It's looking more and more like a complete fluke that UNC ever won a championship with a mouth-breathing yokel sitting on the bench and watching the crucial moments of the game fly past him by like an off-duty cabbie who's late for happy hour at the VFW. Not that I'm bitter."

Patrick in Chicago: "If there was a game that demanded a Gus Johnson closer moment, it was the D-II championship game. The Barton kid pulling a Reggie Miller to beat a team that hasn't lost in 50+ games. Damn, that was great ending for two teams I will completely forget in a couple of minutes, but an ending for the ages. If that happens on the D-I level, it goes down as one of the greatest games ever."

(Important note: This was the real-life ending of Robby Benson's outburst at the end of "One on One" 30 years ago. Click on this link and scroll down to the box that says "NCAA Division II Championship" for the highlights. Just do it. You have to believe me.)

And one last e-mail from an anonymous reader in North Carolina ...

"I wanted to write you without my name or anything, just as a student of UNC. Our loss last night was tough -- some might say heartbreaking. But what's worse is that it may overshadow the death of a true Tar Heel. Jason Ray, our mascot, died this morning. He was the very first person I met at UNC. He was helping freshmen move into the dorms as a part of Intervarsity (a Christian ministry on campus). The elevators were all jammed up, so he helped me cart a refrigerator, futon, and all my other stuff (and girls have a lot of stuff) up NINE floors in the 100-degree heat. And he did it happily. We became friends and I spent a lot of time around him. He let me wear the ram head one time because I thought it'd be funny (even though I'm sure he wasn't supposed to). You've probably gotten a lot of e-mails about yesterday's game, but could you maybe mention Jason in your article, if only for a second. The world deserves to know who this person was. I don't just want him to be a 'UNC mascot dies' blurb on ESPN.com. He was such a good person. A true friend. What every Tar Heel should aspire to be."