SAN ANTONIO — For the past three weeks, it’s been all about buzzer-beaters, bracket-busters and basketball — a much-needed reminder about just how beautiful this game can be.
For the next six months, it will be all about ugliness and uncertainty, while college basketball wrestles with the changes it must make to keep the sport alive.
The 2017-18 campaign could very well be remembered as the season that ridded the upper echelon of college hoops of any last whiffs of the notion that it is all about amateurs, “student-athletes” and playing for nothing more than a scholarship and pride.
An FBI investigation that resulted in the September arrests of 10 agents, coaches and businessmen with basketball ties did what the NCAA never really could — laid bare the inner-workings of a shady, money-grubbing business that’s been teetering on the edge of the rulebook, and the law, for decades.
“The state of the game, there’s no doubt, there’s some question marks now,” Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said.
Between the FBI probe and other media reports, violations have been alleged at 28 schools, ranging from businessmen taking recruits’ parents out to lunch to $100,000 payoffs to get them to sign with certain programs; 17 of those teams were in the March Madness bracket. A panel led by Condoleezza Rice is examining the problems and is expected to release a report, and its recommendations, on April 25.
The president of the NCAA has promised action , but said he would not support anything truly game-changing — as in, rules that would fundamentally alter the amateur status of the “student-athletes” whose efforts are the underpinnings of the $1.1 billion the NCAA earned in 2017. The lion’s share of that comes from the men’s basketball tournament that brought Villanova and Michigan to Monday night’s final.
More significant change might have to come from the NBA, which is considering ending the “one and done” rule that calls for players to either be 19 or complete at least one year in college before becoming eligible for the draft.
Passed in 2005, that rule altered the landscape of college basketball, putting the lie to the notion that these players — at least the very best ones — come to school to earn a degree. “One and Done” is often derided as the catchall explanation for everything bad about the college game.
Changing the rule, however, won’t necessarily change the roles of agents, AAU coaches, college coaches, middlemen, handlers and shoe companies, all of whom partake in what is essentially an unregulated, underground talent-acquisition business, the likes of which the NCAA hasn’t the resources or rulebook to control.
“Any time there’s money involved, isn’t there always corruption?” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins asked, rhetorically. “We’ll have to wait and see how widespread it is. If that’s it, and you see it’s only four (coaches) who were guilty, that’s pretty good.”
But Huggins, like most coaches The Associated Press talked to last week, says he has no idea what to expect.
“Nothing personal, but I’m the wrong person to ask,” said Andy Enfield, the coach of Southern California, which fired associate coach Tony Bland after he was arrested in the FBI probe, accused of accepting $13,000 for steering two players to specific business representatives. Bland has pleaded not guilty.
At risk are college basketball and, most notably, the future of a tournament that shows, time and again, exactly why the sport is worth saving.
The MVP award for this year’s tournament may as well have gone to a 98-year-old nun, Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt , who willed her underdog team from Loyola-Chicago all the way to the Final Four as an 11th seed, while reminding fans that basketball, like life, is about more than mere winning and losing.
The Ramblers weren’t the only underdog to come up big.
A tournament turned upside-down featured the first-ever 16 vs. 1 upset when Maryland-Baltimore County knocked off Virginia.
“A heck of a season,” said Virginia’s coach, Tony Bennett, “with a heck of a loss at the end, of course.”
Like the UMBC-Virginia game, the best of the tournament is often centered around upsets.
It brings about an uncomfortable paradox: These three weeks invariably place a few spunky little-guy teams that presumably do things the right way against a few fearsome behemoth programs that presumably don’t. It’s the reason we watch.
Yes, the sport is overdue for a good scrubbing. But if, someday, everyone really is playing by the same rules, will that ruin the event we love?