published Saturday, March 22nd, 2014

Greeson: College basketball needs fixing

Amid the net-ripping fun of the current NCAA tournament, allow me to pick nits.

Yes, Thursday and Friday provided great drama. Not just sports thrilling, but great drama for everyone. It was unbelievable theater filled with close games and unpredicatability.

But it was two days. Is college basketball going to bank its long-term future on a great 48-hour stretch on a Thursday and Friday in March? Is that a sustainable model built for long-term success?

Attendance was down across almost all levels of the game. Television saturation has hit hurricane status. The ratings of Thursday's first round were the highest in 23 years according to CBS, which is great, but one day does not a successful season make.

College basketball faces a myriad of problems that are only going to intensify and expand no matter how much fun we've had in the last two days.

The game is broken, and discussing those issues at the high point of the year could appear cynical. However, it should be viewed as instructive and of the utmost importance.

There are three major issues that must be addressed. Each has value and each needs the others. This great game can be saved -- it should be saved in the name of Wooden and Crum and Smith and Pitino -- but believing that a wonderful weekend of fun is worth 51 weeks of blah is foolish.

First, the eligibility situation has to be changed. All of basketball would benefit from the sport embracing baseball's draft rules, and if the kids go straight from high school, so be it. College basketball did not miss LeBron and Kobe as much as it missed years two and three of Derrick Rose, John Wall and the rest of the one-and-done gang.

This needs to be a priority for the NBA as well as the NCAA, as each would benefit. If a kid is ready, let him go into the league, and if that kid is ready -- LeBron, Kobe, Kevin Garnett et al. -- then we already know about them and they are prepared. If not, the NBA could instantly benefit by letting the one-and-doners become two-and-through or three-and-we'll-see guys. That way, the NBA gets rookies we've heard of and college basketball retains talent until we are familiar with the starters on the nation's power programs.

The counter-balance of the great drama of the opening weekend of the tournament is the little-known teams and players destined for the next round. And as much as we love Duke being upset -- and Duke was bounced by the only team in the country that started five seniors all season long -- if Mercer keeps rolling, who exactly is going to be stoked for a potential A-Sun team playing in the Final Four?

The quality of basketball in the college game is at a crossroad. The premier programs are at the mercy of the one-and-done mercenaries, and when the tournament comes around, 18-year-old freshman five-stars at the premier programs are being upset by the 23-year-old seniors at sleeper schools who are busting brackets. That's fine in rounds one and two, but get to the Elite Eight and the casual fan loses interest.

Second, there has to be a way to make the regular season mean more. There were some great games this year that helped kindle some interest from December through March, but there was no connection and little momentum.

Some of my true college hoops friends said this was a great year of basketball. I asked them for examples. There were three or four truly memorable games, but that was because of the action rather than the impact.

A four-month march to March that is little more than a quadrupled NFL preseason does very little to create energy or interest.

Why not give the automatic NCAA bid to the regular-season champ? It's the truer determination of the best teams. Would this devalue the conference tournament? Sure it would, but the fact that the major conference tournaments finish on the weekend of Selection Sunday and have a celebration shelf life ranging from 36 to 3 hours, so what? They have devalued themselves already, so why should there be value on something that is admittedly worth less than a weekend's worth of merit.

Finally, and this must be done soon, the play-in game structure must be reworked as soon as possible. Take Tennessee for example, which had to play on Wednesday night, finishing at almost midnight, and be back on the floor in less than two days.

This is not about the teams as much as it is about the brackets. And among the primary interests of the growth of college basketball, the bracket is chief among them.

The current play-in scenario makes it more difficult to fill out a bracket, and that is in stark contrast to the overall interest of the game.

We're not suggesting that they have all the 16 seeds in Dayton, but we know there are fewer office pool entries this year because folks waited too long on seeing who won the play-in games.

And as great as the tournament is, if they damage the madness that is the bracket, then the NCAA is dumber than we expected. It gives major sports the galvanizing factor they all crave -- a rooting interest to the casual sports fan.

These hurdles must be cleared for the great game of college basketball to be great again. This may seem like an awkward time for a call to arms for college basketball, considering how great the last two days have been.

Remember, as JFK said, the best time to fix a leaky roof is when the sun is shining.

about Jay Greeson...

Jay was named the Sports Editor of the Times Free Press in 2003 and started with the newspaper in May 2002 as the Deputy Sports Editor. He was born and raised in Smyrna, Ga., and graduated from Auburn University before starting his newspaper career in 1997 with the Newnan (Ga.) Times Herald. Stops in Clayton and Henry counties in Georgia and two years as the Sports Editor of the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal preceded Jay’s ...

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