Season of the near miss in college basketball

April 6, 2015 GMT

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Maybe it was fitting that nobody — not even Kentucky — escaped this year unscathed.

Monday night marks the final chapter of a very imperfect season for college basketball. It was filled with the usual thrills of March and April but just as many rough patches in the months before.

A season closing with Duke playing Wisconsin for a title the smart money said would land in the Bluegrass State included a steady parade of complaints and concerns, both about the quality of the product on the court and the viability of the game off it.

This was also the season basketball lost two of its greats within the span of a week — coaches Jerry Tarkanian and Dean Smith. When they got into the profession, would either have envisioned the 2015 version of the beautiful-yet-troubled mega-business they helped create?

“It’s a whole new world,” said Steve Fisher, the 70-year-old San Diego State coach who made his name leading Michigan’s Fab Five to the Final Four in the ’90s. “With Dean and Tark, and I’ll throw my group in there, no one ever got into it thinking, ‘I’m going to get rich being in this profession.’ Today, a lot of people get rich as a result of being in this profession. Everything about that isn’t totally healthy.”

What to change? Where to start?

“I guess if there was one thing I could change, it would be the ‘one-and-done’ rule,” said Jim Harrick, the former UCLA and Georgia coach who, like Fisher, has had his run-ins with the NCAA.

As Kentucky’s $7.5 million-a-year coach John Calipari reminds reporters frequently, the rule stating a player can leave for the NBA after a single year of college isn’t his rule. Nor is it actually an NCAA piece of legislation. It was written by the NBA and its players union and they are reviewing it for possible changes.

When the Wildcats, with four NBA-quality freshmen on the roster, lost to a senior-laden team from Wisconsin in the semifinals Saturday, it struck a blow for traditionalists who say you can still have it all — a full college career, a chance to play for a title, and a wealthy future in the NBA. Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky and two of his teammates, Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes, forged opportunities to do all that with the Badgers.

Some think that’s an all-too-rare occurrence anymore.

“The team I played for, they’re still doing documentaries about it,” said 1990s Duke star Grant Hill, a key character in the much-discussed ESPN account of his hateable teammate, Christian Laettner. “But if it was this day and age, that team never would’ve existed. I would’ve been pressured to leave after my first year.”

Hill is now calling the games on TV, and though the tournament — worth $10.8 billion in rights revenue to the NCAA over 14 years — has been thrilling, the season leading up to it was something less.

Curtailed by changes in the way refs called the games, coaches’ unending focus on defense and a 35-second shot clock that just seems too long, teams averaged 67.6 points per game. That was a drop of more than three points from last season, and back to just a tad over the 2012-13 numbers, which were the lowest since the pre-shot-clock era of the early 1950s.

Other problems include too many media timeouts that take too long, and the turtle’s pace of the last 2 minutes of games, which are subject to even more timeouts, along with a steady flow of official video reviews that suck the life out of the arena.

The not-so-coincidental toll: Attendance at Division I games has fallen for seven straight seasons; as of late this season, ESPN saw about a 6 percent ratings decrease on its telecasts.

“I do have some concerns about the game itself, and some things, I think, need to be fixed and worked on,” said Dan Gavitt, the NCAA’s vice president for men’s basketball.

Despite all that, March Madness has a way of restoring faith in the game.

It’s the time for filling brackets, for falling in love with underdogs and, at the end, for watching one team bask in confetti while “One Shining Moment” blares over the sound system.

Thanks in part to Kentucky’s now-stifled march for an undefeated season, Saturday’s semifinal against Wisconsin drew the most viewers for a national semifinal in 19 years.

“When we criticize the game, we’re using some selective memory here,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “We’ve got a unique product that millions of people love. Everything needs a little fixing and doctoring here and there. But, by and large, everything is really good.”


AP Sports Writer Dave Skretta contributed to this report.