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HOLLOWAY: March Madness not what it used to be

POSTED: March 30, 2008 5:01 a.m.

Here we are again, on the cusp of the single greatest American sporting event of the year — but it ain’t what it used to be.

Before we go any further, let’s clearly establish the NCAA basketball tournament’s perch in the sports fans’ calendar.

The contenders:

Super Sunday?

Tough to top, it’s almost a national holiday. It fits the contemporary American lifestyle like a pair of weekend blue jeans. One game, on a weekend night, but not too late, stuffed with diversions galore including special guest American Idol appearances, flashy commercials, eight hours of pregame hype, and oh yeah, a football game.

But we don’t always get Eli Manning squirming out of a sure tackle and the Giants slaying the Goliaths of the NFL. More times than not, we’re treated to the kind of savage beatdown that leaves quarterbacks and coaches questioning their career choices.

March Madness, on the other hand, delivers the goods more reliably than UPS.

College football bowl season?

You won’t find many fans of the college version of the world’s best sport bigger than me, but even I’ll skip half of these games. The No. 4 ACC representative vs. an at-large from the MAC? Wake me up in the fourth quarter.

NBA playoffs?

Which month of this marathon are we talking about?

MLB playoffs?

Is Sid Bream involved? No? Then I’m probably watching football by now.

The World Cup?

I’m not even a soccer fan, but this is good stuff. Still, we’re talking about American sports here.

NHL playoffs?

See above.

March Madness wins in a blowout — UNLV Tarkanian-style. That’s been my opinion since I made cutting classes on the tourney’s first day a yearly ritual in middle school. Funny that my parents never caught on to the correlation of my flu-like symptoms to tip-off. Or maybe they just knew me better than I thought.

Hmm.

Sans fake nausea and make-up tests, it’ll all happen again this year.

Tears, sweat and maybe even a little blood. Anguish and exhilaration via live game break-ins. Mounting evidence of Billy Packer’s man crush on Coach K. All of it coming from four corners of the country and all of it before 2 p.m. EST on a Thursday.

Sports don’t get much better.

Unfortunately, though, we’ll all be a little less emotionally invested than we might be, because the understandable lure of the NBA is stripping the college game like a West Virginia mountaintop of its most valuable resource: The star player, the household name.

Quick, name the best college basketball player in the country.

It’s Kansas State’s Michael Beasley by the way, but if you came up with a name — any name — then you’re a hop, skip and a jump-stop beyond the casual fan.

Of course the talent’s still out there — arguably, in an embarrassment of riches. Six freshmen made the official list of midseason Naismith Award finalists, the award given to the country’s most outstanding player. Beasley, Kevin Love, Derrick Rose — these guys are big-time, and if you don’t already, you’ll know their names one day. Problem is, it might not be until NBA draft day. So if you haven’t seen them yet, you’d better be watching this weekend. By this time next year, they’ll probably be sitting on a bench in Memphis next to Kwame Brown during one of those thrilling Grizzlies-Bucks barn burners.

Used to be, you had at least a couple of years to develop a love — or a hatred — of guys like Patrick Ewing and Christian Laettner. Not so anymore. Only one of last year’s top four Naismith finalists (North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough) is still playing college ball.

And it’s not just the college game that the bolting-for-the-pros trend is hurting. The NBA suffers, too.

That may sound strange, considering the league is in the midst of its best regular season since the early Michael Jordan years (you know, when he was still in his prime, but while we still thought he might be fallible). But for every LeBron James or Kevin Durant who successfully transitioned to the pros with little or no college exposure, there are 25 flops.

Anybody heard from Darius Miles lately?

Carmelo Anthony, Durant and Greg Oden became stars during the course of their one college season, but what if they’d hung around for two, maybe three years? What if we finally got another Bird and Indiana State versus Magic and Michigan State?

Just two, maybe three years. That’s all I’m asking.

But that genie’s out of the bottle. Too many kids are bona fide NBA-ready at 19. NBA commissioner David Stern helped matters by pushing through a rule mandating that athletes be at least that old before they’re eligible for the draft, but another rule change is unlikely.

So, what we’ll see this March is likely to be what we’ll see in the forseeable future — a fantastic event to be sure, but pardon me for wishing it was a little better.



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