The Times West Virginian

Bob Herzel

March 18, 2014

HERTZEL COLUMN- Mystique is still alive in NCAA 

MORGANTOWN — The other day, as the networks were hyping the NCAA Selection Show, as if it needed any hype at all, they ran a video montage of Final Fours from yesteryear.

One second you were looking at Bob Knight in that God-awful plaid sports coat he once tormented America by wearing, next you were watching John Wooden chewing on a rolled up program, then there was Jim Valvano, bless his soul, running wildly across the court looking for someone — anyone — to hug.

There was a close up of Ohio State’s Jerry Lucas; there was the Doctor of Dunk from Louisville soaring through the air; there was Bill Walton, who came as close to playing the perfect final game for UCLA as you ever will see; and Jerry West, who got to the final but couldn’t win it.

It was wonderful nostalgia and, as it was being shown, you were certain that across America people were saying “Boy, those were the days.”

Being that I’m someone who has reached a plateau in life where all too often I am talking about “the good old days,” the montage brought back a flood of wonderful memories of brackets gone awry, but it also got me to wondering just how good those old days really were.

Then, come Monday on the Big 12 basketball coaches’ final weekly conference call, a line of questioning developed whether or not the mystery that had made the NCAA Tournament so fascinating over all these years had gone out of the NCAA.

With so many games involving so many teams being televised, not just on the weekends but on every day of the week, and with the athletes themselves being so involved in play beyond their own high schools through AAU play and Nike- and Adidas-sponsored teams and events, they wondered whether the mystique that drove the tournament had gone away,

True, there is more familiarity with teams and players, but such parity has come to the game that it has almost erased the line separating mid-majors from majors, making the outcome of the NCAA Tournament even more uncertain than ever.

“I always thought the mystery of the NCAA was the potential upsets and Cinderella teams and the one player who comes from nowhere like Kemba Walker (who came out of nowhere in 2009 to score 23 points against Missouri and lead Connecticut to the Final Four),” said Bill Self, the Kansas coach. “I think the intrigue and mystery is still there.”

Think about it for a minute.

It’s true, when Rollie Massimino led Villanova to an NCAA title in 1985 the Wildcats carried a No. 8 seed, the lowest to ever win the title. That represents the mystique that makes the tournament what it is, just as when Valvano’s N.C. State team of 1983 defeated Houston’s Phi Slamma Jamma, 54-52, on a last-second miracle that defied description.

But perhaps no one was watching last year when Wichita State went to the Final Four and even more amazing, a No. 15 seed, Florida Gulf Coast, turned its home base in Fort Myers, Fla., into “Dunk City” as it reached the round of 16.

And was not Virginia Commonwealth in the Final Four two years ago and George Mason in 2006?

The basketball world is different now … far, far different.

You do not see a UCLA winning 88 consecutive games as it did under Wooden or winning national championships in 1964, 1965, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973 and 1975 — 10 of them in 12 years.

Mystique?

Hardly. But today everyone has players, big-time players at small-time schools.

The fact of the matter is that the talent is so much better today than it was … kids bigger, stronger, running faster, jumping higher … and basketball holding a much higher place in their hearts and minds than it did in “the good old days.”

Think of it parochially. West Virginia is certainly a major college out of a power conference that had two pretty fair players in Juwan State and Eron Harris, a coach who is Hall of Fame-bound, it would seem, and yet it wasn’t even really competitive in its conference.

What does that tell you about the depth across the nation?

Oh, there were upsets in the NCAA, but most of the time there was a best team.

I defy anyone to tell me who the best team in this year’s field is. I even Tweeted following the draw that I didn’t think any of the No. 1 picks would make the final and, other than Florida, which does seem to have the easiest route, I feel pretty strongly about that.

Again, speaking parochially, Kansas won the Big 12 regular season and Baylor won the tournament of the best conference in the nation, while West Virginia roasted both of them during the regular season.

This certainly may be the year that Cinderella really does win the NCAA … or maybe it will be even more surprising, a team made up of the Seven Dwarfs.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel

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