Rather, these are my final four thoughts about the state of ACC and college basketball as the curtain closes on the 2012-13 season of basketball and basketball blogging for Triangle Offense.
1. Talk that the failure of an ACC team to reach the Final Four since 2010 is a sign of a weak conference is a bit overblown, for two reasons. First, the league has had teams in the final eight the past three years. Last year's Carolina team probably would have made it to the Final Four without the Kendall Marshall injury. This year's Duke team probably would have been a No. 1 seed without the Ryan Kelly midseason injury, and hence wouldn't have had to play a team as good as Louisville until reaching the Final Four.
Second, there are other much stronger indicators of the league's relative decline. By the start of conference play in January it was evident the league would be getting a max of five tourney bids—it ended up with four, which was about right. More tellingly, in recent years other schools beside Duke and Carolina have failed to break into the elite and make noise nationally at the same time. N.C. State was supposed to do that this year, but had a season of relative under-achievement and now faces the prospect of having to undergo a complete facelift of its personnel. Miami did break through in the regular season and ACC Tournament, but its woeful performance against Marquette in the Sweet 16 was a major letdown.
Generally speaking, ACC basketball has been in slight decline the last four years or so. But all that its supposed to change next year with conference expansion, leading to our second thought...
2. Is ACC basketball as we have known it simply over? I have heard that opinion expressed by many long-time fans who are not pleased with conference expansion. They may be right. But there is a clear-cut way to preserve local rivalries: creating "pods" or divisions with home-and-home play within each of 4 pods (in a 16 team league) or 3 pods (in a 15 team league). Either way, you could have an 18 game league schedule, plus a tournament that would be truly interesting as a mechanism for determining the league's best team, since the unbalanced conference standings wouldn't tell you. This would allow the Big Four teams to play each other home and away every year, and keep at least part of the Tobacco Road tradition going.
As the games wind down, unfortunately, the necessity for viewers to actually watch the TV timeouts goes up. No more will there be four games on a time to skip between; instead, there's one game at a time, and if you plan to watch it live, you are going to be watching a lot of ads.
In regular season play, there are four "media timeouts" per half, plus coach timeouts, plus in the 2nd half the first coach time out automatically becomes a fifth media timeout. For this NCAA tournament, they are also making the first coach timeout in the first half a full media timeout. So we are talking about ten media timeouts in most games, plus additional coach timeouts.
How long are the media timeouts? I've been timing them on my DVR, and usually whistle to whistle there is between 2:45 and 3:00 of real time between the stop and start of play. That's a lot of coaches talking, players and fans standing around, trips to the bathroom, and mindless commercials airing.
Then there's halftime. Standard halftime for an NCAA basketball game is 15 minutes. In the NCAA Tournament, halftimes have been lasting 22 minutes or more.
Why is the NCAA (and CBS) blatantly breaking the rules of basketball by having Orange Bowl-sized timeouts?
That cha-ching you hear in your mind as the question is asked is surely the reason why.
I have a particular interest in that piece not just as a basketball follower but because I also once wrote a piece for The Nation critiquing college sports, titled "Bad as They Wanna Be" back in 1998. That said, the tone of Zirin’s piece leaves me uneasy and on at least one major point, entirely unconvinced.
There is a strange disconnect between descriptions of NCAA basketball as a sheer exploitation machine and the observed fact that the participants in March Madness seem highly invested in and excited about their teams’ success. It’s quite wrong to imply that the athletes are getting nothing out of this arrangement: They get the benefits and satisfactions of testing themselves in competition and practicing their athletic craft at a high level. In theory, they also get the benefits of a college education and a chance to change their life trajectories.
Should they also get financial benefits? I certainly think so. Zirin calls for athletes to get stipends; I favor that, and also favor athletes in the revenue sports getting a substantial lump sum payment upon graduation.
Is it also the case that too many athletes are not getting the full benefits of the college education promised? Certainly, especially at the biggest schools, in the biggest sports. But many athletes are in fact having a good experience in the classroom and on the field, in the non-revenue sports and outside the quasi-pro big schools. Some are even having good experiences within the biggest sports factories. And the fact is, March Madness pays for a great deal of it—including thousands of opportunities for women athletes.
And is it not also the case that too many athletes, especially males, are getting too many benefits of the wrong kind—that is excessive social adulation that sometimes translates into problematic behavior and attitudes of entitlement? Yes, that is a real phenomenon and danger too.
These are reasonable questions to raise. But Zirin, in his recent writings, seems bent on adopting an “abolitionist” position—he wants to abolish the NCAA, calling it a “corrupt cartel.”
This is not a well-thought out position; and in the context of his article, it’s illogical.
Consider Zirin’s five proposed reforms. The first is providing athletes with compensation protections in case of injury (I agree); the second and third are requiring institutions to offer athletes four-year scholarships and giving athletes stipends (I also agree). The NCAA in fact already requires athletes to have health insurance (either family-based or provided by their schools) and also provides a catastrophic insurance policy for athletes, and in the past couple of years has actually shown openness towards movement on the latter two issues. This is not to say the current insurance programs or proposed reforms are adequate, but there is no inherent reason why the current NCAA structure could not implement these reforms (especially if pressured to do so, a point I will return to below).
Zirin also says ceilings should be placed on coaching salaries so as to fund the stipends. I’m not opposed, but am not sure this will do what Zirin claims. No calculations are provided to show that this move would be enough to cover a substantial stipend; the real areas to look at costs savings are in bloated athletic bureaucracies and in the arms race to build bigger and better stadiums and facilities.
Finally, Zirin says the NCAA should be abolished. And replaced with what? Zirin doesn’t say. This is a problem because the stipend and scholarship reforms he favors each presume the existence of a governing body that can compel institutions to agree by a common framework of rules—the essential function the NCAA performs.
Zirin does say he thinks the pro leagues in football and basketball should fund their own minor league teams, and not leave the job to colleges. It’s a nice thought, but it is on par with saying that it would be nice if we could abolish the U.S. Senate because it over-represents low-population states.
That is to say, the idea doesn’t take seriously a couple of key facts. First, millions of people are highly invested in their college sports teams—not just those big-contract coaches or fat cat university donors, but ordinary people, the kind leftist writers claim to be in sympathy with. Second, one cannot wave a magic wand and undo more than a century's worth of evolution of a country’s particular sports culture and replace it with something one thinks better.
Now perhaps Zirin doesn’t intend for these minor leagues to actually replace college sports. After all, minor league baseball and college baseball co-exist. (Which raises a question: Does Zirin really think an 18-year-old is better off forgoing college altogether to embark directly in a pro athletic career that is likely to be short?) Even if you had minor leagues funded by the NFL and NBA, they would not replace the role of college sports in the American sports landscape.
The reality is that college sports are here to stay, simply because they are too important to too many people (not all of whom are rich and powerful elites). And so long as you have college sports, you need a governing body. Indeed you need a governing body that is far more assertive and proactive than the current NCAA, but it’s hard to see how doing away with the current NCAA is going to get you something better.
The NCAA committee didn't exactly hand any of these schools a break. A&T has been forced to participate in what used to be known as the "play-in" game, now rebranded the "First Four." The First Four consists of four games, two involving teams like A&T that didn't win their league regular season but snuck in the field by winning their conference tournament, and two games involving the final four at-large teams admitted. The Aggies must get by Liberty, the only team with a losing record this year, champions of the Big South.
The Sagarin college basketball ratings make A&T (No. 242) a one-point favorite over Liberty (No. 260). The reward for winning would be a date with Louisville in what quite ridiculously is now called the "Second Round." Sagarin has Louisville as a 27-point favorite in such a matchup. The best team the Aggies have played this year is Cincinnati—a 54-point loss early on. Later A&T did play major conference teams Texas Tech and Seton Hall much closer, losing by 11 in each case.
Davidson's 14-seed is due to a weak schedule. But at 25-7, this Wildcat team knows how to shoot and how to win. Davidson hasn't lost since Jan. 14, and already has played Gonzaga and Duke reasonably close, losing by 14 and 17 points respectively. Sagarin makes Davidson out to be just a six-point underdog against Marquette, who probably wasn't thrilled to draw the Southern Conference outfit on the 14 line.
Then we have the local ACC teams. Despite finishing second in the ACC regular season, many projections last week had Duke as a likely 1-seed. The loss to Maryland in the first round of the ACC Tournament Friday ended those chances, and now the Blue Devils face a potentially challenging road to the Final Four. In the Sweet 16, 3-seed Michigan State could be waiting, and 1-seed Louisville could be there in the regional final (if they can get by A&T or Liberty, of course). The Spartans are as ever a bruising outfit that could cause Duke problems, and most people think Louisville is now playing the best ball in the nation.
But you never know what's going to happen along the way; perhaps upsets in the other side of the bracket will clear the way for Duke to make it to Atlanta without having to spring upsets of their own. The task this week is to get by Albany and either Creighton or Cincinnati. North Carolina faced Creighton in the round of 32 last year and some Tar Heel fans are still bitter about the foul that ended Kendall Marshall's season. Those same fans would surely put their bitterness aside and cheer on the Bluejays against the Blue Devils if the teams meet.
For what it's worth, Duke is 18 points better than Albany, according to Sagarin. Duke would be favored by just four over Creighton and six over Cincy in the second round.
North Carolina State needs to at least match its Sweet 16 run of a year ago to avert the sense that this season was an opportunity squandered. The Wolfpack have been given a tough row to hoe as an 8-seed, despite being ranked No. 25 by Sagarin. State plays Temple in the East region, with Indiana likely waiting in the wings in the second round.
The good news for NCSU is that Sagarin makes the Wolfpack a healthy four-point favorite over the A-10 Owls. Temple has quality wins over VCU and Syracuse, but lost to Duke by 23.
A good effort by State should see them into the second round, setting up an intriguing matchup with Indiana. The two schools met early in the 2011-12 season with the Hoosiers overturning a halftime deficit to prevail by 11. Sagarin makes Indiana out to be a six point favorite if the teams play this year.
This leaves us with North Carolina. The Tar Heels fell to an 8-seed despite being ranked No. 19 by Sagarin (and similarly in the RPI ratings), either due to lack of a signature win over an elite team or because CBS wants to market another Jayhawk-Tar Heel game, depending on your sense of how the committee process actually works.
In any case, the Heels have no choice but to get on with it. Sagarin makes Carolina out to be a three-point favorite over Villanova. Nova has had an up and down season but owns big wins over Louisville, Syracuse and Georgetown. They are not a great shooting team; the question of this game is going to be whether Carolina's potent offense can overcome Villanova's stingy defense (rated 24th nationally by Ken Pomeroy.)
Should Carolina win and should Kansas somehow manage to overcome Western Kentucky, strictly speaking Kansas would be a five-point favorite in the Third Round (Formerly Known as the Second Round).
That might seem manageable, but consider that the game would be played in Kansas City—and Sagarin's method adds four points on to the home team in making predictions. Really then, you're talking about Carolina trying to win as a nine-point underdog.
A tall order, but there is some precedent in recent history. The last two times Carolina made the tournament as an 8-seed—2000 and 1990—the Tar Heels knocked out a 1-seed (Stanford and Oklahoma, respectively) to advance to the Sweet 16.
If the Tar Heels can tap their shoes together three times and repeat that history, little girls across Kansas next Sunday night will be telling their dogs, "Toto, we're not in the NCAA Tournament anymore."
Yes, top-seeded Miami and Duke are the odds-on favorites. But unlike the top-heavy tourneys of yore, at least five teams—including North Carolina, N.C. State and Virginia—enter this weekend with a realistic hope of winning the ACC conference crown.
But no matter who cuts the nets down this Sunday, more ink will again be spilled chronicling and diagnosing the ongoing erosion of the college basketball conference tournament. Whenever articles are written on this subject, however, the true objects of lament are really the major conferences. Small and mid-major tournaments are thrilling as ever, as schools in the Ohio Valley or Big South tournaments aren’t just playing for conference glory; they’re fighting for their one shot at the Big Dance.
While major conference tourneys continue to publish capacity attendances, actual turnstile figures and the basic eyeball test tell a different story. The ACC released sold-out attendance figures for the 2010 tournament in Greensboro, but the average turnstile number per session was only 15,690. Despite changes in ticket allocation between the member schools beginning in 2011, empty seats pervaded Philips Arena in Atlanta throughout tournament weekend last year, particularly the perennially poorly-attended Thursday sessions.
OK, but really, where do Carolina and Duke fit in The Big Picture? That's the kind of comparative sports culture question that has long fascinated political scientist Andrei (Andy) Markovits of the University of Michigan, who has spent the past week shuttling between Chapel Hill and Durham on a spring break visit from Ann Arbor.
The ostensible reason for Markovits' visit to town is to participate in a conference on the 30th anniversary of the German Green Party's entrance into the Bundestag, as well as a series of talks and classroom visits related to Markovits' scholarly expertise in German politics, contemporary anti-Semitism and related issues.
But while German politics made Markovits' academic career, it's his writing about global sport that has given him a much larger public audience. Markovits is lead author of three widely respected, scholarly books about sports and sports culture: Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism, which explains why the U.S. uniquely doesn't treat soccer as a major spectator sport; Gaming the World, a study of the impact of sports on globalization processes; and Sportista, a study of female sports fandom in the U.S. that was published last fall.
Markovits's next sports-related project is a comparative analysis of great rivalries in world sport. And that brings us to the real organizing principle behind his visit to these parts this week: in order to take his first-ever pilgrimages to the local temples of basketball—Cameron Indoor Stadium and the Dean E. Smith Center—as well as scratch an item off his bucket list by attending the Carolina-Duke game tomorrow night in Chapel Hill. Markovits plans to include a section on the Carolina-Duke hoops rivalry in his next book.
Hence this past Saturday night, Markovits took in the epic Duke-Miami game from center court as the guest of a ranking Duke academic administrator. Eighteen hours later, he was in Chapel Hill watching the Tar Heels dismantle Florida State from plush lower level seats in the Dean Dome.
Markovits has been a Tar Heel admirer from afar for many years. We met 10 years ago when he was a visiting scholar and I was a graduate student at Harvard; he decided to teach my book on Carolina basketball in his Harvard course on sports and modernity and invited me to give a guest lecture on the history of UNC basketball. He continues to assign the book (“More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many”) to his course on sports culture at the University of Michigan, a course which is featured in an ESPN magazine article this week on the legacy of the Fab Five.
Here at Triangle Offense, we're catching our breath in the last lull of the college basketball season. Next week sees the buildup to the season-ending UNC-Duke tilt that will determine the course of the free world until the next time the two teams meet. Week after that is the ACC Tournament, which despite its extreme unimportance, is a tradition unlike any other—than March Madness, of course.
So, with nothing much going on beside a UNC-Clemson scrap down in Littlejohn Coliseum and third-ranked Duke getting floor-rushed yet again, this time at Virginia, basketball scribes Thad Williamson and Rob Harrington agreed to email each other some thoughts, prompted by my question below:
On Thu, Feb 28, 2013 at 12:56 PM, David Fellerath wrote:
Thad, there's a bit of a media meme about college basketball, namely that the game has become dull, with the rules tipping the balance in favor of defenders. Here's Adam Gold on WRAL.com. The key metric is that scoring is at its lowest in 30 years. Here's The New York Times on this subject.
What do you make of this?
But it also could be because the memory does not easily recall examples of classic, close-to-the wire Carolina-State games played in Chapel Hill. The game in Raleigh is always a big event for both teams because of the intensity of the crowd, the fact that State has usually been competitive even as an underdog against the Tar Heels at home, and because there have been some exciting, tense games (though none that have come down to the final possessions recently).
The situation in Chapel Hill has been different. Not only has Carolina held court since 2003 against the Pack at home, they've done so in generally dominant fashion. True, Roy Williams's first Tar Heel team in 2004 had to sweat out a tough 68-66 win (an important W for that particular team). But since then the average margin of Carolina's wins over State at home has been 18.5 points, with the closest game being an 89-80 victory by the 2009 Tar Heels, a contest played at a stage of the season when the eventual national titleists were not showing a great deal of zeal on defense.
Going further back, truly close games in Chapel Hill have been a rarity for some time. The 2003 State win in Chapel Hill came in overtime. In 1997, Carolina pulled off a stunning comeback in the final two minutes to defeat State and avoid an 0-3 start to ACC play, a win that helped jump start a run that ended in the Final Four. State pulled off a 99-94 upset win in Chapel Hiil in 1992, a highlight in an otherwise tough year for Les Robinsons's crew.