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With college hoops on decline, March just another ordinary month

This year's Final Four seems more like Best in Show at the Westminster. Such pedigree: Kentucky, Kansas, Ohio State and Louisville -- four of the very top dogs in the history of the sport. Well, it's a Meryl Streep kind of year, isn't it?

But if this Final Four might delight fans by giving them aristocracy in its teams, unfortunately the whole of college basketball is plagued by anonymity in its players and external issues which have diminished the popularity of the game.

Good grief, this year there's been more buzz about "Mad Men" than March Madness. Even the goofy students at Duke stopped jamming little Cameron Indoor Stadium, and when the Dookies are losing interest in hoops, it's a clue even Inspector Clouseau can't stumble past. The dispiriting fact is that attendance for the college game keeps declining throughout both the regular season and during the NCAA tournament.

So much of the problem is external: the competition. As the violent game of football grows more popular, and its season extends longer into winter, all hoops are squeezed. College basketball doesn't seem like a season anymore. It's more like a spring break. There's even talk now of not scheduling college basketball till after the New Year, running March Madness all through April. Seems like a good idea.

But because NCAA tournament games must be scheduled at the last minute at stale neutral sites that seem to be as far away as Bulgaria or Sri Lanka for most home-team fans, it means that, like the Olympics, March Madness is more and more a TV show.

However, unlike other competition-style TV programs like "Dancing with the Stars," and unlike other sports, March Madness is at its greatest disadvantage now because you don't get to know the characters. The brightest stars leave for the NBA after a year -- "one and done" -- just when they're beginning to attract interest. There's so little identity or continuity -- and basketball is the most personality-driven team sport. It's especially revealing that the biggest fuss made about March Madness are the brackets, and, essentially, filling out a 68-team bracket has as much to do with sport as does buying a lottery ticket.

It's representative of the whole situation that, for the Final Four, Kentucky is the huge favorite, because the Wildcats are a transient team made up mostly of freshmen who'll be gone next year, off to the NBA. Can we really say that "c" in the NCAA any longer stands for "Collegiate" if virtually a whole team doesn't spend much time in college? Let us say that, more correctly, the NCAA is now the National CBS Athletic Association.

But understand, the Kentucky way is all perfectly legal. If I were a good player I'd leave and go make some money, too, and if I were Mitt Romney I'd make the Kentucky coach, John Calipari, my running mate, because -- silver-tongued? -- hey, Calipari is absolutely platinum-tongued. He can talk anybody undecided onto his side. UK by a KO.

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