March 11, 2007

Madness in March (or, Go, Gonzaga, Go!)

AS A FOOTBALL FAN above all else, I must admit I don’t share the passion for college basketball which energizes so many of my fellow sports fans. Basketball has always struck me as a second-tier sport, on par with ice hockey and auto racing, and a sport one generally watches because there’s no football or baseball on television.

Furthermore, compared to the order and strategy one finds in football and baseball, basketball is a generally chaotic affair in which all decisions are tactical and style is too often valued more than substance. Every missed dunk, every technical foul, every bit of showboating and every bit of faux controversy stands as testament to that argument.

I mean, really. Think about how many times one has watched a basketball game and seen the following scenario take place:

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Teams A and B are playing in a game in which the score is tied. Team A has the ball and is passing it around in an attempt to find an open shot, when a player for Team B intercepts a poorly-thrown ball. The squad from Team B then rushes down the court only to miss an easy lay-up. Team A then recovers the ball as it rebounds from the basket, and rushes back down the court with it. One player for Team A then drives towards the basket with the ball, and a scrum of players for Team B attempt to stop him.

In so doing, a vague foul of dubious import is called against a player for Team B, while the player for Team A – despite running with the ball in hand for six or seven paces – is not called for traveling. This prompts Team B’s coach to jump up from the bench and start screaming at the officials, which results in a technical foul. Suddenly, Team B finds itself down several points. With little time left, long-established tactics call for Team B’s players to repeatedly foul players on Team A. Anticlimactic denouement follows, along with extensive commentary from Dick Vitale and Kraft Foods Inc.

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What’s that? My scenario isn’t realistic? Yes it is, and you know it, baby! Especially regarding the fouling bit. I’m certainly not the only one to have asked: what the hell kind of sport not only encourages fouling, but makes it an accepted tactical maneuver during the final minutes of the game?

Here’s the truth – that’s just wrong, OK? In football, penalties result in scorn and derision all sixty minutes of the game, and that’s pretty much the case in baseball and ice hockey as well, although in the latter sports, there are exceptions (e.g. Ozzie Guillen, Ogie Oglethorpe). But in basketball, hell – go ahead, foul away.

This fouling situation is even more mystifying because no one, not even the referees, knows all the potential foul calls in basketball. Does a player accidentally touch another player while trying to defend a shot? Foul. Does a player spend too much time near the basket? Foul. Does a player cut back one way across the court, then another way, dodges past a guard and drive for the basket? That’s a foul too, even though the player picked up a triple-word score AND used the X and Z tiles.

But all those fouls, again, are OK because as long as one doesn’t have five (or six) of them, they can still play in the game and realistically suffer no consequences. Meanwhile, you can be damn sure that the football player who got an unnecessary roughness penalty is STILL in the doghouse with his coach, the assistant coaches, and most of the offensive line.

Of course, there are plenty of other things with basketball I’m not thrilled about. Let’s look at the collegiate basketball realm for some examples.

One major issue is that many of the schools competing for this month’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament are annoying (e.g. Virginia Tech), utterly lame (e.g. Purdue) or thoroughly deserve to get knocked on their asses (e.g. Duke, USC, Duke, Michigan State, Duke). Sure, this means there are plenty of teams to root against, but the plethora of icky teams will often mean a team one doesn’t like will end up playing another team one doesn’t like. This is not fun.

It’s also not fun when teams from – how does one put this – less-renowned conferences are given guaranteed berths in the tourney, despite no one knowing who the hell they are. For instance, it’s worth noting the Corpus Christi campus of Texas A&M University – the Corpus Christi branch campus, for God’s sake – won something called the Southland Conference and as such, was named a No. 15 seed in this year’s tournament. While I will secretly root for them in their game against Wisconsin – because Wisconsin, as a matter of course, goes easy on their schedules each year – it does feel like Texas A&M (CC) will show up, get beaten about on the court, and have a long, not fun bus ride home.

Now, I don’t really mean to cut down the Texas A&M (CC) squad – well, not directly, anyway – they were just the first example that came to mind. They also have an impressive 26-6 record, which is better than one can say for, oh, Purdue. But it’s no fun watching cannon fodder get cannoned either. So either the NCAA has to do a better job promoting why these teams are important basketball players on the national scale, or add in more at-large berths for other schools. I’m just saying: I’m sure the Mid-Continent Conference is important, but I’m not entirely sure why it should get a guaranteed tournament berth.

That said, it’s also not fun when one’s own alma mater will ONCE AGAIN lean against the wall looking awkward during the Big Dance, because one’s alma mater can’t win a big game even if their evil arch-rivals practically hand them a victory on a plate. Not that I am bitter.

After all, Michigan’s situation is Michigan’s own fault. Getting caught putting nitro in the tank is not exactly a way to make friends or influence people. Still, that was many years ago and it is getting increasingly frustrating to have a basketball team that can’t get the job done when it needs to do so. All Michigan basketball fans want, when you get right down to it, is at least one win over Ohio State per season and a berth in the NCAA Tournament, even if that berth involves playing Fairleigh Dickinson (or a similar school) in the play-in game.

But I digress. Plus, I want to end on a positive note – which is that March Madness starts this Thursday (or Tuesday, if you count the play-in game). This is one of two times during the year in which basketball is enjoyable to watch (the other being when the Clippers are in the NBA playoffs). So, I do hope Rant readers will spend some time watching the college kids play some hoops – because like all sports, this isn’t just about the game of basketball. It’s about school pride, cheering on one’s favorite underdogs, blatant regionalism and indulging in a whole bunch of schadenfreude (e.g., with Duke).

Speaking of favorites, since my alma mater is heading to the Not Invited Tournament ONCE AGAIN, The Rant will again root this year for its coreligionists, the Gonzaga Zags, who are apparently really the Gonzaga Bulldogs but no one calls them that. I haven’t any idea how well they’ll do, but I certainly hope they’ll do well – and knocking off Indiana would be rather a bonus, I would think.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at March 11, 2007 09:29 PM | TrackBack
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