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Wednesday, March 19, 2008
The tourney that will be better than the Big Dance

By Scoop Jackson
Page 2

The biggest basketball event of the year is upon us. Sixty-five teams, sixty-five dreams -- all packaged beautifully, blinding us with brackets. Greg Gumbel, Seth Davis, Clark Kellogg -- their voices will be implanted in our heads. Kids ballin' for the sheer love of the game, in search of Carmelo Anthony-like immortality; coaches coaching for fame, wanting their own Jim Boeheim moment. The biggest lie in sports every year: "One Shining Moment." One? Believe me, from now until April 7 there will be hundreds.

But believe this, too: This year the NCAA tournament will, for the first time since Billy Packer started calling games, be outshined by what will commence on April 19 -- when the best eight teams in the NBA Western Conference begin playing a tournament that might go down as the greatest, most compelling, drama-filled, high-level, high-stakes six weeks of basketball ever played. No disrespect to the NCAA selection committee, Myles Brand or Andy Katz, but this year's Western Conference playoffs will be, without question, everything that this year's NCAA tournament wishes it could be.

Chris Paul
Chris Paul and his Hornets will be a "Cinderella" in the West, even though their record is among the best in the conference.
This year the NBA's Western eight will be greater than the NCAA's 65.

The Western Conference has become the pinnacle of the basketball world. No longer is UNC-Duke the best two-plus hours in basketball. Now it's San Antonio-Phoenix, or Dallas-Golden State, or Houston-Dallas, or the Lakers versus anybody. Ever since the All-Star break, the battles out west have taken on a life unseen since MJ stepped away from the game for the second time. After the race to the playoffs is over, a team around 20-plus games over .500 will be left standing on the outside, wondering how the heck it missed the postseason.

Case in point: San Antonio, the team almost everyone outside of L.A. considers the best team in the league and the front-runner to win the chip (again). In the past week San Antonio has lost to Denver and Phoenix, beat Denver, then lost to New Orleans by 25. While everyone was wrapped up in the Houston Rockets' historic win streak, no one noticed that the defending champion Spurs -- at full strength -- have been losing games late in the season to teams they will see early come late April and beyond.

Now this isn't all about the NBA. This one-year takeover of basketball supremacy was able to happen thanks to the NCAA's allowing the excitement surrounding the tournament to dissipate. All season long the NCAA has been struggling to regain the fan interest it lost when Kevin Durant, Greg Oden and all those Florida Gators decided to leave school for the pros. All of a sudden, the entire college basketball world was revolving around an 18-year-old kid stuck at a school in Kansas that Dick Vitale hadn't visited since he had hair.

There's no clear-cut team to love and hate at the same time. No bitter conference battles like the one that took place in the Big 12 last year (remember Texas versus Texas A&M?). O.J. Mayo has been somewhat of a disappointment. Memphis has lost only once, but it played in a conference so weak this year that an AAU team would have finished in second place. And no one knows who the great Adam Emmenecker is.

Just when it seemed like the NCAA was about to get its swag back with Boston College guard Tyrese Rice's 46-point performance -- 34 at halftime! -- against UNC, Kobe came back the next day on national television and dropped 52 -- 30 in the fourth quarter and overtime -- on the Mavs, reminding everyone that the NCAA is cute but the NBA West is sexy. It's like choosing between Hayden Panettiere and Scarlett Johansson. See what I'm sayin'?

I'm not saying that the NCAA tournament won't be great. The next three weeks of basketball may be the best we've seen all season. But better basketball is waiting. The Hornets fighting for position, still playing like they are fighting for their lives. The Rockets being anywhere from the No. 1 seed to the No. 6 seed at the end of this week after playing three games in four nights against the Hornets, Warriors and Suns. And winning six games in three weeks is supposed to be the biggest challenge?

Just ask yourself: When is the last time you've seen a tournament where the teams involved are so close that the odds of the lowest-seeded team defeating the highest-seeded team are practically even? A tournament where each team gets to play its opponent up to seven times, and the tournament is stretched out almost two months? How perfect would the basketball world be if a tournament like that was upon us?

Well, in six weeks it will be. So enjoy filling out your bracket, enjoy the former greatest basketball festival in the world. Because once the NBA's version of the NCAA tournament begins in the West, we might not even remember that college basketball has a tournament.

Scoop Jackson is a columnist for Page 2.