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Anger amid the madness: 5 stupid things about March in college basketball

The Madness of March is delightful… but not 100 percent of the time.

This is a great month, but precisely because it’s the one month when every American sports fan really cares about college basketball, March is a good time to study the landscape. This is when it’s important to reveal (or magnify) the excesses that are part of the college basketball industry and the way it is covered by the press.

No preamble. This is a rant column. Let’s get to it:

5 – THE WOODEN AWARD’S ACADEMIC COMPONENT

Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News wrote an excellent column on the subject, so let’s give him the first word here:

The fundamental issue here is that we are turning awards which are ostensibly connected to on-field performance into catch-all awards for wholesomeness, character and virtue.

First off, being good at a sport and being a virtuous, ethical person are not one and the same thing. They can converge, but there’s no inherent relationship between the two. Peyton Manning is the latest example of an athlete (however virtuous he in fact is or isn’t) who is perceived one way for much of his career, only to encounter a moment when public opinion either changed or, at the very least, felt different in tone or tenor.

Ben Simmons isn’t handling his academics well in his one season at LSU. That’s not being disputed either. However, how well one performs in the classroom is germane to a best player discussion only to the extent that he is eligible to play. If ineligible, the player doesn’t play, and can’t showcase his talents. To the extent that said athlete can play, if he plays like one of the top 15 players in the nation, he is — in point of fact — one of the 15 best players. One’s GPA is not a basketball credential or a measurement of basketball quality.

Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston were the best players in college football, whether or not they signed autographs (Manziel) or allegedly behaved inappropriately with a woman (Winston).

Giving awards — or consideration for awards — only to players who meet academic requirements is, essentially, false advertising. Academic All-American awards recognize a fusion of scholarship and perfomance. College football gives an award to a scholar-citizen-athlete. No one’s against celebrating and recognizing scholarship and citizenship among collegiate athletes. Let’s create more awards for those.

Let’s be intellectually and culturally honest, though: The Wooden Award — like the Heisman — is about the best performer in the sport… not in a math class or on an English literature test. Especially in the case of one-and-done players such as Simmons, for whom academics is simply not a primary point of emphasis, we should not try to cross-match criteria for an award. If you’re great at basketball and you’re eligible to play, that’s it. Give more air time to Academic All-Americans if you think academics need to be promoted more.

4 – “IF THE SEC TOURNAMENT STARTED TODAY”

Last Thursday, an “ESPN family of networks” broadcast of the Georgia-South Carolina game flashed a graphic, giving the SEC Tournament matchups if the event started at that moment. Forget the fact that Saturday’s seven games would decide the issue. Someone had to insist on a present-moment bracket.

Know what would actually serve viewers? A graphic on scenarios which would lead to tournament seeds.

Projected NCAA tournament brackets have their place. They’re okay… after Valentine’s Day. Projected conference tournament brackets? They’re stupid.

Speaking of brackets…

3 – ESPN GIVING JOE LUNARDI WAY TOO MUCH OF A PRESENCE IN OUR LIVES

This is not Joe Lunardi’s fault. The man himself is a nice guy, pleasant and affable. He’s the father of bracketology, the man who made so many of us fall in love with the “science” of projecting NCAA tournament teams. We are all in his debt for that reason.

However… ESPN has taken things too far in the attempt to put Lunardi in front of our faces.

Constant exposure in January and early February is wretched excess. So is the early-March practice — witnessed Saturday during the California-Arizona State game — of having the announcers talk to Lunardi while live action is unfolding, with a visual of Lunardi on a split screen.

Can’t this be done during a TV timeout or at halftime? An interview during live action is questionable to begin with. Having Lunardi on the screen, instead of settling for a standard audio-only interview, is exponentially worse.

2 – COACH OF THE YEAR AWARDS:

WE CAN’T RECOGNIZE EXCELLENCE AT THE HIGHEST LEVEL

Jeff Eisenberg of Yahoo! Sports wrote the definitive column on the subject:

Bill Self gets my vote as long as he keeps winning Big 12 titles… and no other team makes as big a statement. Tubby Smith is a personal favorite of mine, but he went 9-9 in the Big 12. Self won his 12th straight league championship, a figure which is three higher than his number of home-court losses at Kansas since 2004 (9).

The only other thing worth adding: This is a lot like Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer not winning Big Ten Coach of the Year in football at Ohio State. The dynamic of punishing high-level success is, in other words, not contained to college hoops.

1 – THE ACC REGULAR SEASON IS NOT THE ACC CHAMPIONSHIP; ONLY THE ACC TOURNAMENT IS

It is a way of life and a part of culture in the Atlantic Coast Conference. I can honor a component of culture and acknowledge that the ACC Tournament is and has been the best conference tournament in college basketball. No conference tournament is more revered or has left a more indelible mark on the sport’s history. The 1974 ACC Tournament final between North Carolina State and Maryland crowned a national champion and changed college basketball, bringing us the 68-team field we have today. The influence of the ACC Tournament on the rest of college hoops is enormous, and almost entirely for the better. There’s lots of love to be given to the ACC Tournament.

Except in this one case.

The ACC Tournament is viewed by the ACC and its fans as the true championship event for the conference season. The regular season takes second place.

There’s a very good argument to make in terms of putting the value of a first-place regular season finish in perspective. The argument concerns the imbalanced schedule: which teams you play twice or once, which teams you play home or away, how the shorter turnarounds in the schedule are arranged (Saturday-Monday, for instance). There is no debate that the composition of a schedule affects the order of finish in the standings.

However, saying that the regular season doesn’t confer a championship upon the first-place finisher is a bridge too far.

How is this different from other sports? Georgia sometimes won the SEC East in football when it didn’t have to play Alabama from the SEC West. That didn’t stop the Bulldogs from being rightly recognized as SEC East champions… but the one or two SEC West crossover games certainly influenced the ultimate outcome. The college basketball conference season is twice as long as the football conference season (16 games to 8, sometimes 18 games to 9), and at least every league team plays each other once, so it’s not as though teams entirely avoid others. When Duke won the 2013 ACC Coastal, the Blue Devils earned their title… but they didn’t have to play Clemson. One can note the influence of the schedule, but one would never say Duke didn’t earn the championship.

Here’s the better and more central argument on this point: 18 games should always trump three games in terms of weight and centrality. The point shouldn’t require elaboration, but just to be sure, let’s offer a brief addendum:

Let’s say a team is seeded third in the ACC Tournament. It plays an 11 seed instead of a 6 in the quarterfinals, a 7 instead of a 2 in the semis, and a 4 instead of a 1 in the final. It didn’t play the top two teams in the tournament and got a favorable quarterfinal.

If 18 games didn’t decide the champion, three games subject to bracket permutations — played on consecutive days, not with a day off in between — do?

No. Just no.

That would be stupid… but of course, lots of things about college basketball in early March are stupid.

Thus ends this “get off my lawn” rant.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

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