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A less than stellar crop of freshmen and an underwhelming regular season could negatively affect March Madness

By Pete Thamel
March 11, 2016

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NEW YORK — In some sense, the scene felt coated in college basketball nostalgia. Mid-afternoon at Madison Square Garden. The over-gelled stockbrokers lining the courtside seats, double-fisting $10 beers. Chants of "Let's go Wildcats" and "Let's go Friars" echoing through the venerable old barn. For moments, it sounded like and felt like the college basketball glory days here.

For the sport as a whole, however, the familiar feel-good moments have been hard to find in this listless season. With Selection Sunday less than 72 hours away, college basketball's precipitous retreat from the mainstream sports landscape is appearing to threaten the popularity of the NCAA tournament. Things may look and sound familiar, but there's worry that the apathy that defined this regular season will carry over to the Big Dance.

This season seemed to unfold with little buzz, few stars and few moments that transcended the sport's niche. The sport's biggest story this year was the escort scandal at Louisville, not exactly a ringing endorsement of on-court play. NBA front office executives bemoan a talent drain that will produce the worst draft in the past decade. While long overdue rule changes like shortening the shot clock have increased the quality of play and increased scoring by eight percent, ratings didn't respond. ESPN regular season ratings still dipped by 11% across the network and were down across TV networks. There's a sentiment among many long-time observers that the product is undistinguished, something backed up by six different teams being ranked No. 1 this season. The gradual decay of familiarity from the churn of stars from one-and-done and the chaos of conference realignment have overhauled the paradigm of the sport in the past decade. Unfamiliar rosters and matchups year after year have robbed the sport of some intimacy.

College basketball purists will tell you that parity will make for an exciting and unpredictable tournament. And the $20 that millions of Americans fork over in their office pool will continue to drive ratings. But others will tell you that this March lacks juice, as there won't be a defining star or polarizing team to compel the common fan to stop watching House of Cards and tune in. At some point, the wire-to-wire clunker of this college basketball regular season may translate to the NCAA tournament.

It's not too early to predict that last year's serendipitous Final Four has no chance of being matched. It had a once-in-a-generation undefeated Kentucky team, the likeability of the Wisconsin veterans, the familiarity of Michigan State and the annual ratings juggernaut of Duke. There's no best-case scenario for similar results, as there's no team nearly as polarizing as Kentucky, endearing as Wisconsin or as star-laden as Duke this year. Any of those three teams in this postseason would be title favorites. (You could throw last year's Arizona team and a few others in that group, too).

The 2015 Final Four crushed in ratings, as the national title game between Duke and Wisconsin drew a 17.1 overnight rating. That actually outperformed the College Football Playoff Final between Alabama and Clemson (16.0). It's hard to envision a scenario where the NCAA basketball final comes close to drawing as much attention this season.

The most glaring thing missing from this college basketball season has been star power. LSU freshman forward Ben Simmons is the only true NBA franchise player in college basketball, and many pro scouts say they have struggled to watch this college hoops season. (Some will concede that perhaps Duke's Brandon Ingram could join him someday.) Still, this is an NBA draft that has more NBA teams focused on sleepers and foreign prospects than bedrock players. "This is the worst draft in the last decade in terms of high-end talent and potential franchise players," says one NBA assistant general manager.

Simmons attended LSU because his godfather, David Patrick, is an assistant there. The knocks on Simmons's game entering schools were his poor shooting and his questionable motor. Thanks to the inability of LSU coach Johnny Jones to highlight Simmons and develop his game, he leaves with those knocks unresolved. Simmons has averaged 19.6 points and 11.9 rebounds per game, so he has certainly not been a bust. But his likely failure to lead LSU to the NCAA tournament—the Tigers will probably need to win the SEC tournament and get the league's automatic bid to get in—will become a bigger indictment of Jones's coaching as each year passes and Simmons's NBA star grows. Only four No. 1 picks who played college basketball have missed the NCAA tournament since 1966.

A joke in college coaching circles is that recruiting Simmons to LSU will likely shorten Jones's tenure at the school instead of extending it. The spotlight on Simmons and the failure to fully manifest his talent brought national attention to the long-held perception in the SEC that Jones plays checkers while the other coaches are playing chess. Losses to College of Charleston (on Nov. 30), Houston (on Dec. 13) and Wake Forest (on Dec. 29) in the nonconference season magnified Jones's reputation as recruiter of talent, not a developer of it. LSU battled injuries for much of the year and is 18–13 entering their SEC tournament opener against Tennessee on Friday. But few will regard the Simmons experiment a success without an NCAA tournament appearance.

Some coaching stars will also be absent from this year's NCAA tournament. Coaches are the sport's constant, and two Hall of Fame coaches won't be on the sideline in March because of NCAA issues. Rick Pitino's Louisville Cardinals and Larry Brown's SMU Mustangs are banned from the tournament. The Cardinals self-imposed sanctions in the wake of accusations that an assistant coach arranged escorts for recruits. The NCAA banned SMU for multiple infractions, which included academic fraud and unethical conduct. A third Hall of Famer, Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, was suspended for nine games this season by the NCAA, and his team may not make the NCAAs. (Syracuse self-imposed a postseason ban last year.) Syracuse went 4–5 in Boeheim's absence, and those losses could leave the Orange (19–13) projected on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble. Those absences won't define the tournament by any means, but potentially losing three of college basketball's five active Hall of Fame coaches could add to the lack of familiarity.

This NCAA tournament will ultimately become a referendum on whether parity is interesting. The upsets will come, and many have predicted this will be the year a No. 16 seed finally beats a No. 1. The reality is that most upsets this year won't feel much like upsets, as there's so little difference between a No. 12 and a No. 5 seed that the magnitude of the moment is sapped away. If a No. 16 does beat a No. 1 or a No. 15 does beat a No. 2, that's a glorious story but could have severe consequences for ratings.

The familiar sights and sounds of March Madness will be back next week—the VCU band playing, Gonzaga dancing, North Carolina looming. But as much as it will look and sound the same when the ball tips for the First Four Tuesday in Dayton, this feels like it will unfold as a much different NCAA tournament.

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