The NCAA Tournament tips off Thursday with some very compelling match-ups, and I can’t wait for the madness to begin.
Hope is always tough and could be headed for an intriguing second-round contest with Wheaton. I have a soft spot for Wooster because my little brother played ball there, so I’ll be pulling for the Fighting Scots.
And then there’s my own alma mater, Franklin & Marshall, matched up with Wesley in the first round. Coach Glenn Robinson is the career leader in Division III with 752 wins and has taken the Diplomats to the Final Four four times, but has never brought home the hardware. Will this be the year?
And does anybody outside these schools give a crap? In all honesty, my own interest is tepid at best. I’ll be curious to hear who wins it all, and if F&M or Wooster makes the Final Four I may go out of my way to find a telecast of the game on one of the schools’ Web sites. But besides that, it’ll fly under my radar, as is the case with most sports fan.
The media largely ignores the event, too, as it gears up for the orgy of coverage surrounding the Division I tournament. I read a story about the D-III tourney buried in the back of the local paper and couldn’t help but ponder this dichotomy. While an obscene amount of attention and adulation is showered on the athletes and coaches at big-time schools, their small-school counterparts are pursuing their sports with the same amount of passion and intensity...sometimes more.
The Division I tournament is incredibly exciting, but to many of the players it’s just one more rung on a ladder they hope leads to fantastic riches and fame (or at least a nice paycheck in the NBDL or overseas). To D-III players, this is it. While a handful may play in Europe or elsewhere, to almost all of them this is the final rung. There is nothing else.
Think about the mind-set of a Derrick Rose or other one-and-done players at the D-I level and compare that to a senior at, say, Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Rose, of course, takes his game very seriously, but the very nature of the arrangement meant his ultimate concern was just that: his game. Not his teammates’ game or his coach’s game or Memphis’ game. I don’t want to pick on Rose because he’s proven to be an unselfish player and seems like a good kid.
But that’s the reality of it. He was gone after one year, and it happens all the time. Greg Oden and Mike Conley led Ohio State to the championship game the year before as freshman, and it must have been so meaningful to them doing so for a school they attended for, oh, several months. I bet they both have tattoos of Brutus Buckeye.
Now compare that to the kid at Stevens-Point. This tournament is the pinnacle of his athletic career, and he knows it. Believe me, he knows it, and he’ll play like it. When my brother was at Wooster they made the tourney his junior and senior seasons, losing in the opening round both times. The family’s still pretty upset about it 15 years out...and that’s why I love small-college sports.
Anyway, there’s a great Web site that covers it all, www.d3hoops.com, and there’s a bracket if you’re curious. You can even fill it out if you like. Games start Thursday, unlike that other tourney where the March Madness actually bleeds over into April. The D-I tourney doesn’t even start until March 19th and the national title game this year is at a football stadium in Detroit on April 6 (Gotta extend that season as long as possible, cha-ching).
Here are some other things I love about D-III:
- Games are played in actual gymnasiums rather than domes better suited to football games and political conventions.
- The games are exciting and well played and don’t last forever because there’re no TV time-outs to kill the drama and momentum.
- Because no TV, no TV announcers and in-studio analysts with their incessant blather, and no Dick Vitale. This is a very good thing.
- Academically, there are no "Basket Weaving 101s" or "Coaching Basketball" courses for the players to hide in.
- In fact, playing sports at these schools will not win you any favors in the classroom and may actually have the opposite affect as many professors (actual professors teach classes, not 25-year-old grad students) have no sympathy for the demands of your sport.
- Very few incidents involving guns.
- No groupies. This may not seem like a plus to players at the time, but they’ll be happy 20 years down the road when they’re not married to someone who thinks American Idol is culture and shopping a way of life.
- The coaches at this level are simply that and nothing more: coaches and teachers. And many of them are great. Check out this story on Wooster's Steve Moore. He’s run up an incredible record while graduating his players and keeping his integrity and that of his program in-tact. There are Steve Moores all over D-III, coaches doing it the right way who have no desire to go to the next level and deal with all the BS there. They’re not making a mound of money but they’re doing what they love.
Now I don’t doubt that Mike Krzyzewski loves basketball, but doesn’t it all get a little muddled with the TV commercials and shoe deals and multi-million dollar contracts? Judge for yourself: here’s Coach K’s own Web site...www.coachk.com.
You can read all about Coach K, his background and motivations and work in the community; buy books and DVDs by and about him; download his daily podcast; sign up for a camp or "conference on leadership." Wow, where to begin?
Steve Moore doesn’t have his own Web site. There’s a bio on the school’s athletic site, and you can sign up for a couple of basketball camps he and the school host. That’s the extent of it. “At Wooster,” Moore says in that Plain-Dealer story, “I have a great situation.”
Good luck in the tourney, Coach Moore.