March Madness is one of the best times of the year to be a sports fan. And right about now, you're probably filling out your bracket and getting excited about dominating the office pool. The whole exercise is so fun, in fact, that it camouflages the uncomfortable truth that college basketball is in a bad place. Anyone who watches on a regular basis cannot ignore what the television screen so obviously tells us: The quality of play is bad and rapidly getting worse.
Lets start with some names: Otto Porter. Doug McDermott. Jeff Withey. Trey Burke. Victor Oladipo. Russ Smith. Kelly Olynyk. Deshaun Thomas. Mason Plumlee. Shane Larkin.
Those are the names of 10 of the finest college basketball players in the country. Now, if you're reading this, you're probably a college basketball fan. But honestly, how many of those players do you recognize? If you watch PTI everyday or listen to sports talk radio, you probably can identify Oladipo and maybe Porter. If you ever watch ESPN, you probably also recognize Plumlee because he goes to Duke and Duke always seems to have a Plumlee. Maybe, just maybe, you can identify Larkin as a guard for Miami, perhaps because you heard he is the son of former Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin.
Having said all that, I bet very few of you know where every single one of those players goes to college without looking at any outside source for a refresher.
The fact that we fans are less and less familiar with the best college basketball players in the country is not a new phenomenon. "One and doners" — who play for just a year in college before joining the NBA — have dramatically altered the way that major schools build their programs. Hell, even Duke takes one-year wonders now. You have to to remain competitive. But for fans, the turnover is pretty confusing.
Last year, for example, the three best players on Kentucky's national championship team were freshmen. Kentucky fans no doubt love those kids, but the reality is that those players were really only Wildcats for a single semester. The fans never really got to know their stars. And then they were all gone and a new batch rolled into town.
It was not always like that. Every single person who follows basketball, for example, could have told you that Shane Battier went to Duke. But is Kyrie Irving, who also attended Duke for about 10 seconds, truly a Duke guy in the way that Battier is? Can Duke fans tell you Kyrie Irving stories the way they can tell you Battier stories or J.J. Reddick stories? Of course not, because Kyrie Irving was not there long enough to provide story material.
The one-and-done phenomena has done more than make us unfamiliar with the NCAA's top players. It has also led to a hideous decline in the quality of play over the past few years. It's often difficult to tell whether you are watching a college basketball game or some sort of basketball/football hybrid. Last year, average Division I scoring reached its lowest point since 1982.
It's not just because of the lack of team continuity and player commitment. It's also due in large part to the way college basketball games are refereed and, more indirectly, the way those referees are overseen. In essence, referees have stopped calling fouls so long as players keep their arms vertical. Coaches have caught onto this, and they have begun teaching players to "foul with their chests," which is every bit as much a foul as a foul with an arm — only it's not called as a foul. And for reasons that defy understanding, the hand checking that is heavily policed in the NBA is almost always permitted in the college game.
The NCAA basketball tournament is the most charming and interesting event in sports because of the uncertainty and drama it provides viewers. But the fact that March Madness remains spectacular should not blind us to the state of the game. No one has been more outspoken on this issue than ESPN's Jay Bilas (who played basketball AND got a law degree at Duke). Bilas proposes a dramatic overhaul of the way the NCAA oversees its sports, the way it oversees college basketball referees, and indeed, changes to the rulebook itself. These are powerful ideas, yet no one appears to be taking real action. That needs to change, and change in a hurry. Otherwise, the NCAA risks reducing a great sport to a great event. That would truly be a shame.