Why this generationally unsexy NCAA title game is a sign of things to come

Yahoo Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — Texas Tech and Virginia are playing for the NCAA basketball title on Monday night. Please feel free to shield your eyes and look away. Grab a double-shot of caffeine — or something stronger — and get ready for a meat grinder moonlighting as a basketball game.

This is a national title game for the KenPom disciples, the defensive denizens and hardcore clinicians. Not the casual fans who enjoy pace, dunks and flow. Both teams are ranked among the country’s top five in defense, and they have the aesthetic appeal of John Daly in a Speedo. If you need a refresher, pull the Butler-UConn title game from the horror shelf of your DVD collection and relive that 2011 nightmare.

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College basketball’s shining moment on Monday night promises to be a tractor pull masquerading as a basketball showcase. It could end up close, and may have an exciting finish. But on paper, this game is the least-sexy national title game of the past generation. It’s hard to pick a matchup, on paper, that would be ranked close to it in terms of lack of brand and aesthetic appeal. Charge a nickel for every “First-to-40” joke that floats around Twitter the next 48 hours and you may not be rich, but you could afford a few boxes of Puffs Plus for your bleeding eyes.

Texas Tech and Virginia are fine teams with excellent coaches, as either Virginia’s Tony Bennett or Texas Tech’s Chris Beard is going to deliver his school its first national title. They’re also both good stories — Virginia’s redemption from the UMBC loss last year and the bootstrap career of Beard, the vagabond Tech coach. Both are future faces of the sport for the next generation. But for the discerning sports fans in America, these are drub brands, plodding styles and a distinct lack of star appeal. (It was hard to find both Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter and Tech’s Jarrett Culver while they were actually on the floor for long stretches of both game last night as well.)

CBS executives were spoiled with bonkers ratings from the Elite Eight, a byproduct of big stars, familiar brands and close games. They’re drinking tall boys of Todd The Surly Axe Man tonight as they brace for low ratings and two media cycles of incessant complaining. While we wait to see whether each field goal on Monday will be commemorated with a half-court ceremony, here’s a not-so-bold prediction: This is exactly what college basketball could end up looking like in the next few years, with new faces, unfamiliar stars and decreasing national relevancy.

Virginia head coach Tony Bennett directs his team during the first half against Auburn in the semifinals of the Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament, Saturday, April 6, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Virginia head coach Tony Bennett directs his team during the first half against Auburn in the semifinals of the Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament, Saturday, April 6, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Matt York)

This isn’t a fatalist column that predicts no one will be watching and no one will care in the future because the metaphorical Zions will be tucked at the end of NBA benches. This is simply pointing out that NCAA officials should see this buzz-less title game as a warning. This transcends style and focuses more on overall quality, as there wasn’t a lot of inspiring basketball in Texas Tech’s 61-51 victory over Michigan State and Virginia’s 63-62 victory over Auburn.

This weekend is a glimpse of what the Final Four will look like in the future — a lack of household names in both brand and stars, with a distinct lack of familiarity that we’ve become accustomed to at this event. With the NBA expecting to formally end the age limits that have essentially forced kids to college for a year since 2005, there will be a high-end talent drain in the sport starting around 2022. That means after more than a decade of being treated to stars like Anthony Davis, Derrick Rose and Greg Oden in the Final Four, we’re looking at more Hunters and Culvers. Great players, but not paradigm changers.

Saying that no one is going to watch or care is insincere and hyperbolic. But the NCAA ignoring inevitable issues and refusing to work to improve the experience of college basketball players is myopic and short-sighted, long specialties of the organization. Competition is coming for the country’s best high school players, and it comes at a time when the sport is sputtering along at aesthetic lows.

“There’s no stars here, but there’s great games and a lot of people here,” Syracuse coach Jim Boehiem said from the front row of U.S. Bank Stadium on Saturday night. “I think we can survive losing those guys. We need to do a little more for the kids. And we need to give them a path back if [they declare].”

The NCAA and the sport’s power brokers need to address further compensation, adjustments to amateurism and find a working agent model to be sure the NBA and G League don’t siphon off its best talent. They need to give players an option to profit off their image and likeness. NCAA officials have been doing snow angels in their billions for too long to not come up with a better plan to divide the pie, as Mark Emmert’s last public salary of $2.4 million epitomizes how tone-deaf the organization is to why people are paying attention.

“We need a plan,” said Boeheim, the second Hall of Fame coach who has directly called out the NCAA’s lack of direction in the past two weeks, joining his friend Mike Krzyzewski. “We need someone who runs college basketball who knows what he’s doing.”

Texas Tech guard Kyler Edwards celebrates during the second half against Michigan State in the semifinals of the Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament, Saturday, April 6, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Texas Tech guard Kyler Edwards celebrates during the second half against Michigan State in the semifinals of the Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament, Saturday, April 6, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Here’s what NCAA officials and college coaches are drastically underestimating. The culture of the game has changed exponentially since the last time players could go straight to the NBA from high school. They’d only really been going for 10 years, after Kevin Garnett got drafted in 1995. These days, players are creating the shortest path possible through fake prep schools and high school circuits that resemble year-long AAU ball. College looms as much more of an inconvenience — think Ben Simmons — than a destination for top players. How many kids will declare? The guess here is at least 25, and there needs to be pathways and safeguards to be sure that a decision at 18 doesn’t send their career into oblivion or cut off their path to an education.

There are so many issues to address in regards to how players can test the waters and forge a path back. And there’s so much inertia from a billion-dollar business with no one in charge.

Perhaps this dud of a Final Four comes at a good time for NCAA leaders, who have long lacked the foresight to do much else other than give themselves raises and using selective amateurism to protect one of the world’s best business models. The good thing for the organization is that the tournament has become such an indelible part of the American sporting experience that even the NCAA hasn’t managed to bungle it. But they’ve also run it with less competition than a Democrat running for re-election in Massachusetts. That’s changing.

This is a plea for a plan and some leadership, an acknowledgement that evolution and growth are necessary in the face of increased competition. The NCAA makes 90 percent of its money from the NCAA tournament, which means they should at least be thinking about these things will work out of self-preservation. Instead, the last time the sport faced a difficult crossroads, Emmert pushed off the responsibility to a former secretary of state and some country-club elites that understand the sport the same way Gronk understands the bond market.

“They need to get a better plan,” Boeheim said. “They tried to do it. The Rice Commission didn’t do that. The NBA is going to do what’s best for them. We have to be ready. Give [the players] a path. There needs to be a lot of planning and a lot of thought. You need to listen to people that have an idea about it. Not presidents or even ADs now, there’s no basketball ADs. There’s business guys. They keep saying they want to do that, but they don’t do anything.”

Pretending that college basketball isn’t going to be facing competition for its elite talent is a lot like pretending Monday night will be played like a Game 7 between the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets. Here’s to hoping it prompts something more substantive than lame Twitter jokes.

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