For those of you who have the urge to feel old, 30 years have passed since North Carolina State defeated Houston in that NCAA title game.
It was the best time of our lives — Ronald Reagan was president, everyone had jobs, we were en route to winning the Cold War and the Houston/NC State title game was an incredible back-and-forth of pros that included Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and Thurl Bailey.
What we forget is that the national debt had begun its climb over $1 trillion, national unemployment was around 10 percent and the final score of that UH/NC State game was 54-52.
The point is do not suffer the idealists who romanticize how much better the college game was back in the day. People whined back in the day, too, about how much better it all was in the 1960s or ’70s.
The game was different when Olajuwon failed to find Lorenzo Charles for that famous stuff. And the lack of star power in today’s college game is lacking.
Other than that, it’s an evolving game whose innocence is no more, and the tournament is still the greatest postseason around.
“The game is better than what it was,” Kansas coach Bill Self said on Monday during a conference call when I asked him to address the crisis. “If you go back to the best teams in the early ’80s and you watch the athletic ability — and it’s a totally different game. There are more good college players than there ever has been.”
Alas, to the casual fan, the game has issues. Let me address them, and fix them:
Then: Guys became stars in college and retained their immortality as such. Christian Laettner was a dud pro but is an eternal college star. The same for Steve Alford, Bobby Hurley and Rumeal Robinson.
Today: If you are a college star, that means you stink and can’t play in the pros.
“The tournament itself is the star, especially these days with the lack of true star power without a Jordan and Ewing going head to head in the Finals,” NCAA/NBA analyst Steve Kerr said in a conference call with the media on Sunday. “The fans don’t have the opportunity to get to know the great players because they are done after one year. The tournament has maintained its hold on people and it’s grown. The bracket itself is the star.”
In two or three years, the players you should know are UCLA’s Shabazz Muhammad, Kansas’ Ben McLemore and Indiana’s Victor Oladipo — but by then they will all be in the NBA. Unless the NBA changes the early entry rules, which the players union will fight, don’t expect this reality to change. The chance at seven-figure salaries is too great to pass.
Solution: Adopt the college baseball rule. In that sport, athletes can go straight to the pros after high school or have to wait three years.
Then: Who? Villanova’s title game win against Georgetown in the ’85 title game was considered the mother of all upsets, and the Wildcats came out of the Big East.
Today: Rampant. The idea of a Butler, Gonzaga or a mid-major winning the whole thing is a distinct possibility.
Scouting is more advanced, and good players are spread all over the map.
“There are better players, and there is better coaching now than ever,” SMU coach Larry Brown said.
Solution: None. Bring more chaos, please.
Then: Four media timeouts, and coaches had one or two per half. There were no video replays.
Today: Overkill central. Four media timeouts each half. One 60-second timeout, four 30-second timeouts per game, with up to three unused 30-second timeouts allowed to carry over to the second half. Video replays.
This kills the flow of games as much as anything else as refs will go to the replay to avoid making the wrong call, and coaches will call timeouts to stop momentum.
“If [my team] is on the run, I wish there weren’t so many disruptions, and if we aren’t, I wish there were,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said.
Solution: Get rid of the stacked timeouts; if a coach calls a timeout at 16:04, that kills the first media timeout, etc. Reduce the number of times refs review plays. Go back to two timeouts per half.
Then: At its highest level, the flow was better and there was more of an emphasis on fundamentals and less relying on smothering physical defense and raw athleticism.
Today: When it’s right, like the Miami at Duke game earlier this year, it’s still awesome. Gonzaga at Butler was fun, the same for Indiana at Michigan. The problem is many coaches are adopting a more deliberate pace and smothering defense in an effort to be competitive in a game when the talent differential is great.
Guys are bigger and stronger, and some games are physical, brutish basketball.
“Look at the NBA, and 10 years ago it was in the same spot — the games were ugly,” Kerr said.
Solution: Widen the lane, and the refs have to call the game. Coaches and players will adjust.
Then: It was 52 and eventually 64 teams with limited TV selective possibilities.
Now: The field is 68, and you can watch a game on your phone.
Solution: Keep it at 68, and don’t listen to the whiners.