Final Four -- R.I.P. College Basketball Regular Season
"See, BCS! This is how it's done! College basketball, baby!!"
-- Any number of random tweeters after Virginia Commonwealth and Butler punched their tickets to the Final Four this weekend
Yes, in a world plagued by war, unemployment and earthquakes, the manner in which college football determines its national champion still seems to move most people's emoti-meter more than any other topic.
As Southeast 8-seed Butler presumably watched on with the rest of us yesterday while Southwest 11-seed Virginia Commonwealth added to Kansas coach Bill Self's list of "choke jobs," college sports fan shouted from the rooftops that the resulting VCU vs Butler semifinal was an example of everything that was right in the college athletics universe. "All hail, David!"
Those fans are only partially right.
Sure, the participants in basketball's marquee event were determined by the outcome of actual games (as opposed to being determined by a computer and a bunch of voters who rarely watch the teams on which they are voting, like football). This is indeed "right." Right and just.
However, the resulting matchups in Houston this weekend have left us with Cinderella overload, with one semifinal matchup that is largely devoid of casual fan interest, and a quartet of teams whose presence collectively renders college basketball's regular season even less relevant than it already was.
Consider the following:
-- Just three weeks ago, Connecticut was picking itself up off the mat, having lost four of their final five regular season games, plummeting to ninth in the Big East Conference, and preparing to have to win five games in five nights to win the conference tournament (which they ultimately did). They are now the top seeded team left in the Final Four. From ninth place in their conference to best of the Final Four -- what a world!
-- Likewise, VCU also lost four of its final five regular season games to finish fourth in the Colonial Athletic Association, on their way to being sent to Dayton, Ohio, to play in one of the "First Four" quasi play-in games for this NCAA tournament. They were thought to be so undeserving of a spot in the NCAA tournament that Dick Vitale dropped the ultimate insult ("My wife knows nothing about basketball and she still wouldn't pick you!") on them on Selection Sunday...
-- Butler lost five games in the Horizon League, including a stretch of four losses in five games to Wright State, Milwaukee, Valparaiso and Youngstown State. Other than Bryce Drew, name one player who has EVER played for any of those schools. Exactly.
(NOTE: Losing four games out of five at some point in the season is a common theme with all of these teams, like some hideous tattoo that they all had to get just to be allowed in this exclusive club.)
-- Finally, Kentucky actually comes into this Final Four with easily the choppiest of regular season chops of any of the Final Four participants, and sadly a 10-6 conference record and finishing second in their half of the SEC is enough to get that done.
In short, I have news for everyone thinking that this Final Four is some sort of equity lesson for the BCS power brokers -- the BCS cartel is laughing at the Final Four right now.
Contrary to what everyone who loves the "little guy" may think, VCU and Butler both making the trip to Houston for the Final Four is not a great thing for college basketball. It doesn't restore some sort of karmic balance to the universe where the little guy gets their day in the sun. It's not a case study for football leadership to spur radical change in their sport.
It's two nice stories that give Dick Vitale a reason to spew the word "passion" a couple dozen times in 90 seconds to make up for saying that VCU was the black sheep two weeks ago. It's two young head coaches who have done a tremendous job of getting their teams ready to play at the right time.
It's also VCU versus Butler. Meh...
If you're arguing that this matchup is great for college basketball, chances are you work covering college basketball, that you were actually able to name a few players on each of these teams before the tournament began.
Will I watch it? Yes. But I work in sports. I live in the town where the Final Four is, and one of my two favorite teams (UConn) is on the other side of the bracket. All due respect, I'm not in the "casual fan" target demo the BCS is scared of losing if indeed their way is the wrong way. The question is, does this Final Four compel the average sports fan to watch, and I'm going to predict that it won't, or more to the point I'm going to predict it will be watched less than most Final Fours. Maybe I'm wrong.
I'm predicting that the ratings bonanza that this tournament has been thus far (largely on the strength of its new "see every minute of whatever game you want to watch" approach) will come to a screeching halt this weekend.
I've said this for years, there is such a thing as too much of a Cinderella, there's such a thing as too much randomness. If VCU (an 11 seed) or Butler (8 seed), two teams who were in danger of missing the tournament altogether before the month of March, end up winning this thing, especially having gone through the other one to get to the Finals, doesn't that water down the legitimacy of the championship?
I understand the best team doesn't always win, I'm not saying they have to. What I am saying is there's a difference between "Wow! Anything can happen!" and "Holy shit, how in the blue hell did that happen?"
Back to what this means to football, since many of you see the randomness of this Final Four as some big "screw you" to the exclusivity of the BCS -- this Final Four proves NOTHING to the BCS except that there is such a thing as giving too many teams a chance -- I love the NCAA tournament, but this is one of those years where the inclusiveness of it is making the Final Four less compelling to me.
Say what you will about the BCS, but at least they crown a team each year who it can be argued is truly the best in their sport. Butler and VCU aren't anywhere close to the best teams in college basketball. They're a couple of teams who've won four and five games in a row, respectively. Hell, until a couple weeks ago, Connecticut wasn't even in the argument for being one of the best teams in the country, now they're the only team that doesn't have to pack their road uniforms for Houston!
The first weekend of NCAA tournament games is for the double-digit seeds like Morehead State to create the cover of their 2011 Media Guide, to enjoy their "one shining moment." But the Final Four is for the giants, or at most one David to battle the three Goliaths.
Two Davids is too many.
In a year where the sports gods gave Houston an NFL team with an historically porous defense, a 76-win baseball team and an NBA lottery team, they gave us a Final Four with the highest combined four seeds of all time. And they pulled the plug on the relevance of college basketball's regular season, which was on life support already.
Let the games begin, I guess.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from noon to 3 p.m. weekdays and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.
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