The Magazine

They Got Game

Fred Barnes, March mad.

Apr 21, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 30 • By FRED BARNES
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Arlington, Texas
The Super Bowl is boring. I checked out at halftime when Seattle crushed Denver. When the competition among TV ads is more gripping than the game, there’s something wrong. The college football championship? It beats the Super Bowl. And maybe it will generate more excitement with four teams playing for the crown. The World Series has tradition and lots of tension, but major league baseball meanders through the season before playing for keeps—a month too late in the year.

UConn guard Ryan Boatright, right, and Kentucky guard Andrew Harrison

UConn guard Ryan Boatright, right, and Kentucky guard Andrew Harrison

AP / chris steppig

My favorite is the Final Four and the two weekends of basketball leading up to it. The whole country is involved in filling out the brackets, including people who wouldn’t know a basketball from a Frisbee. The first round is famous for obscure colleges with average players beating big-time schools with plenty of five-stars. Mercer beat Duke! What more do you want?

I went to the Final Four in Texas the other day. I had a heavy heart because Virginia’s great team deserved to be there but couldn’t get past Michigan State. The games, two on Saturday, the championship on Monday, were played in a football stadium so the NCAA could gouge extra millions from basketball fans. My seat on level C, section 308, was so far from the court that I watched most of the action on a gigantic television screen. Worse, it felt like timeouts came every 30 seconds, causing an excessive number of interruptions.

But I was thrilled to be there. Basketball has the advantage of playing two-hour games. A football game, college or pro, often takes up to four hours. Baseball games, with a parade of relief pitchers throwing to a single batter before being yanked, go on forever. I prefer shorter games.

Basketball is fun to watch because there are many different ways to play the game. Connecticut shut down Florida with great defense, then defeated Kentucky for the championship with great offense as its extremely quick guards ran rings around Kentucky’s guards and outscored them decisively. Kentucky had beaten Wisconsin with a 3-pointer from the moon with two seconds to go. Wisconsin made 19 of 20 free throws. The one miss was the reason Wisconsin lost.

I like basketball coaches. Most of them are maniacs, but they know a lot. I once interviewed a few of them for a magazine article about Gilbert Arenas, the Washington Wizards star. I thought I knew a lot about basketball, but the coaches understood the game at a much more sophisticated level than I ever imagined.

That’s true of Final Four coaches. Kentucky coach John Calipari is a basketball genius who wins with freshmen who stay one year before turning pro. I thought Kentucky fans might balk at cheering for basketball vagabonds who treat the school as a brief way station. I was wrong. Kentucky fans have no problem with “one and done” players, so long as they win.

During Kentucky’s Final Four games, Calipari sat on a stool near the edge of the court, as close to his young players as he could possibly get. I expected the referees to order him to the bench. They didn’t. Perhaps they were intimidated by Calipari’s reputation as the best coach in college ball.

All the coaches stayed at the Sheraton in downtown Dallas. That was the place to be. My son and I had breakfast with Austin Peay coach Dave Loos and his friend, congressman Phil Roe from east Tennessee. We talked to Auburn’s new Bruce Pearl, who had left as Tennessee coach under an ethical cloud. He said taking the Auburn job was a gamble. He’s right. Auburn is a football school. Good luck, Bruce.

My ideal is a team that plays serious defense, makes a high percentage of its free throws, whose players are selective in their shooting, and whose coach is calm and dislikes calling timeouts. UCLA’s John Wooden and Indiana’s Bobby Knight, two of the greatest, regarded timeouts as unnecessary since they’d already taught their players not to panic and how to proceed in tense situations.

The Final Four is a mob scene. Bruce Springsteen and Kid Rock had concerts as part of the weekend. They weren’t needed. If you have great basketball, you don’t need rock stars. The NCAA, a monopoly in the worst sense of the word, should be aware that everyone comes for the basketball and nothing else. Sideshows add nothing.

Next year the Final Four is scheduled for a football stadium in Indianapolis. A large basketball arena would be a better venue. But the NCAA would make less money. So that’s not likely to happen again. Nonetheless, I hope to be there, watching from a remote seat and enjoying every minute. With luck, UVA will be there, too.

 

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