Friday, April 07, 2006

Is parity in college basketball a good thing?

Winning the NCAA Tournament has long been the easiest way for a coach to be immortalized as a coaching great. Barring a major recruiting scandal (i.e. Jim Harrick, Steve Fisher, and Jerry Tarkanian), coaches that win the NCAA Tournament have historically been held in the highest regard. However, I've been wondering if that is still the case. I guess I'm not really making a statement either way as much as I'm wondering aloud if winning the Tournament no longer carries the same prestige for the winning coach. Mid-majors are making deep runs into the Tournament. Consensus number one teams going into the Tournament are rarely making to the Final Four. Believe it or not, Florida is the only team this decade that has made it to two championship games. I was floored by that statistic. In that same span, George Mason, LSU, UCLA, Duke Florida, Illinois, Louisville, Connecticut, Michigan St., Oklahoma St., Georgia Tech, Kansas, Marquette, Texas, Syracuse, Indiana, Oklahoma, Maryland, Arizona, Wisconsin, and North Carolina have all made trips to the Final Four. That's 21 teams in seven seasons. I can't decide if that means it's easier to win the NCAA Tournament or more difficult. On one hand, since so many different teams were able to reach the Final Four this decade, it could be argued that it's not nearly as difficult as it used to be. Contrastingly, it could be argued that the fact that there are so many different teams that can make the tournament, it's even harder for a coach to lead his team to the Championship. As good as Duke and Coach K has been, they've won one Championship in 14 years!

There is no question that the pressure on coaches in D-1 basketball is greater than ever. With teams like George Mason, Bradley and Wichita St. making runs in this year's Tournament, other mid-majors and lower level major programs are expecting their coaches to do the same thing. Seton Hall just fired Louis Orr after he led the Pirates to an at-large bid in the deepest conference in college basketball. Granted, Seton Hall had some bad losses including its first round Tournament game with Wichita St., but the fact that Seton Hall made the Tournament at all was something that was unthinkable back in November.

College basketball coaches are in the unenviable position of having more pressure to win while at the same time getting less respect for doing just that. The college basketball climate is such that parity will continue to evolve to the point that the NCAA Tournament will expand and conferences like the MVC and CAA will slowly adopt major conference status. This will decrease the odds of a team like Duke, or Connecticut winning the Tournament even more. It seems like the Tournament is no longer an event that crowns the best team in basketball. There are so many good teams that it's nearly impossible to expect any team (even a powerhouse like Connecticut and Duke) to win six straight games against top-caliber competition. Billy Donovan said it best last week when he made the statement that, "If the Tournament was played over again, you'd probably have four different teams in the Final Four." I agree. If that is, in fact, true, then that does lend some credence that Tournament success is less about coaches and more about luck.

My guess is that winning the Tournament will become a harder task while at the same time, bringing less credit for the winning coach since it seems like "everyone" can win the Tournament. That brings me to another question I've been contemplating. Is the state of parity in D-1 basketball helping or hurting the game? I never thought about this until last week when someone made a comment to me about not knowing who anybody was and thus not being interested in the games. As an in-depth college basketball fan, I pretty much know all the teams. However, the average-Joe whom the tournament is marketed to doesn't have a clue which players George Mason or even LSU has on their teams. Personally, I think the parity is excellent for competition but the inevitable result is that there will be teams like George Mason making the Final Four and there will also be Final Fours with no number one seeds. The draw of the Tournament isn't just the excitement but also the fact that the winner will have passed a gauntlet of games to be crowned Champion. The consensus among college basketball fans after this year's Tournament is that it was boring and the fact that four teams from out of the blue made the Final Four made it less meaningful. It's important to remember though, that the Tournament is set up to allow that result. Any team can go on a miracle run and win the Championship a la Villanova circa 1985. That is part of the allure. With conference tournaments, every team has a chance. However, since nobody ever really beats the odds with the exception of one or two "magical" runs, having success in the Tournament was always still viewed as a difficult endeavor. Since lower seed success has now become more of the rule rather than the exception, the "magic" of a lower seed winning has all but disappeared.

I have to admit that seeing no number one teams in the Final Four combined with a foursome of decent but not great teams comprise this year's Final Four makes the Tournament less prestigious for me. I realize that the combination of early defections to the NBA and reduced scholarships has created the present state of parity in D-1 basketball. I don't think anybody is to blame or that it would even be fair to change things. I just think it was an unforeseen development that might just have the unfortunate byproduct of lessening the appeal of March Madness. If there's any consolation, it's that the Tournament can afford to give up some of its appeal and still remain the greatest event in sports.

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