Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Dancin' With the One and Dones

Tournament season in college basketball can be, should be, often is among the most entertaining of all sports festivals. It is the time of David slaying the big guy, of no-name teams from forgotten conferences watching their slightly above average players--some of whom can read--coalesce for one magical moment and take down a Kentucky or a UCLA or a North Carolina.

It is a stretch of slightly more than three weeks when you can find a basketball game on television at just about any minute of the day, often more than one in a split-screen going into the final 30 seconds tied.

There are conference tournaments--every one of the Division I finals is televised somewhere nationally--the NCAA tournament leading to a national championship, NCAA tournaments for the smaller schools and even the NIT for teams with decent records, but not the resume for the top echelon. In its laudable democracy, the NCAA invites all Division I conference champions (the conference determines whether that automatic bid goes to the regular season champion or its tournament champion) and then fills its 65-team field with "at-large" teams deemed worthy. Of course, the selection of these teams results in the first controversy and one of the enduring cliches: the "bubble" team, of which there are many. (The closest thing I have to an alma-mater, UNC Asheville, is the only Big South team to win an NCAA Tournament game. It won the 64 vs. 65 play-in a few years ago. Yippie! Radford is the representative this year.)

The marginal, or "bubble" teams, don't necessarily get into the tournament because they have the best records. They have to play strong schedules, win on the road and prove worthy. That's their RPI rating and a team like Tennessee, which does not have 20 wins, will make the tournament because it has played the second-most difficult schedule in the nation and has acquitted itself admirably with 19 wins. It is the only one of the top 37 teams in the U.S. without 20 wins, but it has beaten a number of other highly-rated teams.

This is also the season when those of us who write for a living (and some of us who used to write sports for a living) stuff cotton in our ears. Sportscasters are nothing if not language lazy, language tone deaf. What value is a good line ("He's as cool as the other side of the pillow") if you can't use it a dozen times a week? What good is a label ("the three-point shot") if you can't affix a new one with each occurrence: the "trey," the "three ball," the "triple," the "trifecta."

Once tall players are now "long" or "players with length" and young players with considerable talent are "diaper dandys" or "one and done" freshmen whose next step is the NBA. The list of these small linguistic horrors has its own length, but the one that seems more enduring than the rest cumulatively is "the big dance."

Conference tournaments most often allow bubble teams with a lot of length, the ability to shoot the three-ball and blessed with a one and done to punch their tickets to the big dance. Once there, they can play the game while we turn off the sound on the TV.

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