By Jason Keidel
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So Cinderella died long before midnight. Assuming you can find a fairy tale within a 35-0 basketball team, Wichita State wore the slipper well.
Of course, they are now 35-1, and in the cold calculus of sports their season is a failure, despite winning 35 straight games and losing the 36th by 2 points with a chance to win on the last shot against a cemented member of the hardwood aristocracy.
The glass slipper, as always, was stomped out by the elitist boot of Kentucky, blue bloods from the Blue Grass State, the eternal elite. Turns out it’s still hard for a chariot to climb the cobblestone road to the title.
And thus the old, obdurate machine rolls on, devouring the big dreams of modest, Midwestern folk. Not much time for sentimentality when money is involved. You pay a coach millions for a reason, for this time of season. You have well-heeled boosters and well-oiled weight rooms and the prerogative of history, old money on top of new money.
The business of college basketball can entertain a fair-haired darling for only so long, long before the Final Four. The fact that a Butler or George Mason can sneak into the final weekend is an aberration in the apparatus, like a computer virus that needs to be wiped out posthaste.
Some of us hoped that Wichita State would ride the feel-good wave at least until the Final Four, and make their enchanted season a referendum on the one-and-done programs, like Kentucky, and show the world you can’t just snatch the sport for a few months and then leap to the NBA.
There had to be some reward for not just nostalgia and cuddly underdogs, but also the long-celebrated, spiritual algorithm of persistence overcoming resistance. Gimme five seniors with some talent and tons of temerity over five freshmen with five stars on their lapels. So much for romance.
We like to view March Madness in amorous hues, an equal opportunity fight for eminence, a true distillation of the American Dream. Only in March is Cinderella a household noun, when the outhouse-to-penthouse narrative is more than a dream. We embrace the symmetry of spring and basketball blooming, all manner of mysterious flora blossoming after a viciously frigid winter.
We still cling to the NC State and Villanova underdog coda, the fantasy that David routinely whips Goliath for a magical moment in April. But if you look at the last 25 national champions you’ll see a logjam of Louisville, Kentucky, Duke, Syracuse, North Carolina, UConn, and Kansas.
Not that John Calipari is doing anything wrong; he’s merely stretching the elastic system at his disposal. But for those of us who recall college basketball when it was a vital sport before March, when a college kid’s career lasted at least three years, we’ve become increasingly detached from the very game that helped develop and brand future NBA stars, a de facto minor league system that worked for generations.
We adored Tim Duncan before the Spurs snagged him. We cherished Grant Hill before Detroit drafted him. We were quite familiar with the Fab Five and sinfully pleased with UNLV, each program pregnant with wildly gifted players, most of whom were just an arm’s length ahead of Johnny Law.
Even Michael Jordan, James Worthy, and Patrick Ewing spent more than a few, fleeting hours in a classroom. But can you now imagine three Hall of Famers holding out in the name of development, maturity, and the college experience?
Turns out George Mason, Butler and, yes, Wichita State, are teases, exceptions to an unbendable rule. The Chalk wins.
Three No. 1 seeds – Florida, Virgina, and Arizona – are still playing. Louisville, Kentucky, Michigan, Michigan State, round up the long-standing illuminati. Those who filled out brackets with chalk are the ones still pining for the office pool cash. Out of the sixteen remaining teams, only three (Dayton, Stanford, and Tennessee) are double-digit seeds.
There’s no point in griping about the inherent unfairness of the whole thing, that the chasm between the powerful and proletarian is only growing, despite the romantic bylines that frame these games. But we’ll do it, anyway.
How does Apex Tech compete with Kentucky? Which school gets the five-star savant? The one with blinding, glassy facilities, sparkling weight rooms, and an army of trainers and nutritionists that would make the Chicago Bulls blush, or the one with two hoops, no nets, and shares their gym with the high school volleyball team?
Who gets the kid, the chemistry teacher/basketball coach or Roy Williams? Sure, I exaggerate for effect. But the sport wonders why we don’t watch, while pitching us the college ideal, that these young men are students before they’re athletes.
You’ve seen the nauseating spots. During halftime of every game you’ll sit through some self-aggrandizing infomercial, with some hulking halfback strolling across a verdant campus, looking for a place to hit the books, breezing by fellow students sprawled out across autumn leaves, snapping the points of endless pencils. Maybe they toss a frisbee to break the monotony of eight straight hours of study.
Sure. They refuse to let the corporate cat out of the bag, that they are nothing more than an ATM machine. But soon a judge will say it for them. Just ask the kids at Northwestern, who are trying to unionize, to the horror of the college presidents, who’ve been gorging at the trough for too long under the guise of amateurism.
No one will cry for the Wichitas of the world, because the sexier game is Louisville vs Kentucky. Two schools at the top of the hardwood food chain, who happen to share a state, fan base, and five-star recruits, all coached and coaxed by two wildly expensive coaches in wildly expensive suits who hate each other just as much as the schools.
We’re being told this is a classic tournament, with juggernauts about to collide like meteors over Texas, and a classic Final Four in store for us. Depends on your view of classic. To some it means unforgettable; for others it means predictable. Does an Arizona – Florida Finals sound unprecedented? Is that must-see TV?
But since sports are the ultimate meritocracy, that would be the purest – just not the coolest – ending to March Madness.
You can hear all the big-business boots on the ground, the squeak of sneaker deals, and the Bruno Magli men instructing them, and the courtside loafers, cheering their alma mater. It’s the sound of commerce. Good, old-fashioned competition, where the best, or at least the rich, always win.
Just a shame we can’t fit a slipper in somewhere.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden.
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