Ignore the idiots whining about a watered-down tournament

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It’s been bitchin’ week in college hoops. Whether it’s whining about the NCAA tournament expansion to 68 teams, the ones who were included this season, the new First Four or moving the games to truTV, TNT, TBS as well as CBS, it’s been one thing after another.

For the next few days, can we enact a moratorium on the complaints and enjoy the games? (Unless you’re Clemson. Then feel free to hate on your schedule)

Should be easy enough — unless you’re Michael Wilbon. He has no interest in a tournament that could be more wide open than ever before. From his column at ESPN:

While that could very well make for overtimes and buzzer-beaters, a slew of upsets and charming Cinderella stories, it doesn’t mean that the quality of play is what it used to be. There’s not a team in the tournament as good as Memphis was three years ago. Fortunately for the carnival barkers, 80 percent of the folks in the office pool don’t know the difference between exciting and good.

He throws out the same old tired argument that the college game isn’t as good as it used to be because of the exodus of underclassmen who bolted early to the NBA. He admits the column is an old man’s rant “where the old man puts down his newspaper, peers over his readers and tells you people how much better this thing was in the old days, which is indisputable when it comes to March Madness,” but that’s just the lazy way of saying he doesn’t watch college hoops.

In case he missed it, Ohio State and Kansas have been excellent this season. Duke’s right behind, and could be even better during the Big Dance because of Kyrie Irving’s return. But maybe Wilbon thinks because Jay Bilas was on PTI talking about how “it’s the weakest field ever” is enough for a rant. Nevermind that Bilas – in the same interview – said the “it could be an even better tournament than we normally have because it’ll be volatile and it’ll be fun to watch.”

Apparently Wilbon is longing for an NCAA tournament that features some mystical field of 64 teams who were all capable of winning. Too bad that tournament never existed.

The Big Dance has always been about its unpredictability. That’s what makes it must-see TV. It’s not the great teams we remember, it’s the moments. It’s Bryce Drew hitting at the buzzer, it’s Chris Webber calling timeout, it’s George Mason reaching the Final Four, it’s U.S. Reed hitting a half-court buzzer-beater to beat the defending champs.

When the tournament includes classic games such as Duke beating UNLV in the 1991 Final Four, we remember those too. But those are the classic games because they don’t happen every year. Not every game is classic.

And to bemoan the lack of great teams is something that happens every season – until the season’s over and we all realize “Man. That was a great team.” Think ’07 Florida, any of the ’08 Final Four teams (1 seeds Kansas, Memphis, UNC and UCLA) or ’09 North Carolina weren’t great? Then you don’t know what great is. This isn’t to say this year’s field is spectacular. It’s not. But it’s not as bad as Wilbon would have you believe.

This all relates to memory. We artificially inflate our memories with images of what something seemed to be, rather than what it actually was. When Wilbon’s talking about how great the tournament used to be because players stayed, who’s he talking about? Michael Jordan left early. Magic Johnson left early. Isiah Thomas left early. Shaq left early. Hell, Wilt Chamberlain left early and that was in ’58 season.

But they don’t always leave, either. 

The mass exodus of players began about 15 years ago. Yet since then we’re had at least three dominant teams by almost nearly any measure: ’96 Kentucky, ’01 Duke and ’07 Florida. (’99 UConn, ’99 Duke, ’02 Maryland, ’05 North Carolina and ’05 Illinois shouldn’t be overlooked either.) If the game is poorer because of the number of guys leaving, how do you explain those teams? Players, come, players go. In case Wilbon hasn’t noticed, people would say the NBA isn’t as good as it used to be either.

We’re artificially inflating our memories of Jordan, Magic and Bird. That’s how it goes. It’s also an argument people will always win because you’re not arguing against facts. You’re arguing against a person’s idea of the facts.

Unfortunately, this turned into a rant about a rant. Ugh. There’s a shorter version of it here, written by John Gasaway, which includes a summation of the argument using free throws as an opt comparison:

 In 1948 D-I players were not very good at making free throws. Back then they shot just 59.8 percent at the line. Free throw shooting improved steadily over the following decade, however, and despite recurring laments that no one can shoot FTs “anymore” the accuracy has been more or less stable at right around 69 percent for the better part of 50 years.

I don’t suppose free throw accuracy translates seamlessly or even particularly well into the qualities that Wilbon finds in short supply: stars, formidable teams, and a high quality of play. But the serene knowledge that I could travel back in time to the Truman administration and kick my similarly-aged grandfather’s butt in a free throw contest has always made me provisionally skeptical of laments that things aren’t like they were in the good old days. Very often this lament is indeed correct, of course (I nominate movie stars and architecture), but it’s one we should always treat with some caution precisely on the grounds that it does come to our lips so easily.

Get over yourself Wilbon. Enjoy the tournament. You want better basketball, wait a few years. There’s always another dominant team around the corner.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.