Commentary

Carter: UConn's forgettable championship ends mostly forgettable season

acarter@newsobserver.comApril 8, 2014 

The college basketball season was barely over late on Monday night when at least one website – cbssports.com – posted what it deemed its “ridiculously early preseason top 25.” Other sites followed on Tuesday.

The look ahead to next season has already started. Search for 2014-15 preseason top 25 rankings, and you’ll find them. Search for way-too-early preseason All-Americans, and you’ll find them.

It’s amusing, though – the notion of looking too far ahead in college basketball. The final Associated Press Top 25 poll of the season, after all, offered no indication of what was to come in the NCAA tournament. A ranking of teams right before the start of the tournament would have indeed been a worthless endeavor, it turned out.

In that final poll, released days before the start of the NCAA tournament, Connecticut was ranked No. 18. Kentucky was unranked. And, if you’ve already forgotten, No. 18 Connecticut defeated unranked Kentucky on Monday night to win the national championship.

It was hardly a memorable final. The second half was particularly abysmal – a parade of missed layups and poor offensive execution that might have seemed appropriate in mid- or late-November, but instead looked out of place on the final Monday night of the season.

And so it ended, one last forgettable game amid a mostly forgettable season. This was supposed to be a season in which freshmen exerted their dominance. And yes, Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins and Duke’s Jabari Parker and Kentucky’s Julius Randle played well. But their presumed exit – Wiggins has already declared for the NBA draft – seems anticlimatic after their hyped arrivals.

The season’s best story – Wichita State going undefeated in the regular season – even feels empty now, after the Shockers exited the NCAA tournament on the first weekend. That loss – against Kentucky, of all teams, and its roster of one-and-dones – rightfully begs the question of how Wichita might have fared in a stronger conference.

Not that the ACC turned out to be all that strong. For the fourth consecutive year, the Final Four came and went without an ACC representative. The conference’s Final Four drought now equals the longest in league history, tying the stretch from 1958 through 1961 when no ACC team reached the national semifinals.

This year, at least, the ACC didn’t miss much by not being there on the season’s final weekend. Kentucky’s victory against Wisconsin in the national semifinals on Saturday night was memorable but few other things were about this Final Four – the spectacle of holding it in Jerry Jones’ massive football stadium notwithstanding.

The national championship game on Monday night was especially disappointing. Then again, sloppy, forgettable games featuring mostly forgettable teams have become the championship-game norm in this era of one-and-dones and nonstop parity.

Sure, there are still great players. Connecticut’s Shabazz Napier. Kentucky’s Randle and Aaron Harrison. And sure, there are still dramatic moments. In some ways, it’s the same. The confetti still falls from the rafters and “One Shining Moment” still plays on and they still cut down the nets and call the winning team the national champion.

The whole thing, though, just feels a bit hollow. And cheap.

Connecticut won the NCAA tournament but does anybody really believe the Huskies are the best team in the country? This is a team that lost by 33 points nearly a month ago at Louisville, and a team that lost against Houston and Southern Methodist – twice.

Kentucky ended the season as the national runner-up but does anybody really believe the Wildcats were one of the best teams in the country? This is a team that stumbled throughout the regular season – one that began the hallowed month of March with a debacle of a loss at South Carolina, which finished 140th in the RPI.

That, though, is a growing part of the problem in college basketball. Great teams are becoming increasingly rare. North Carolina won a national championship in 2009 with standout upperclassmen – including player of the year Tyler Hansbrough, a senior – and five years later that kind of roster construction seems completely unrealistic in this era.

Surprise champions, like Connecticut, are nothing new in college basketball. The triumph of the underdog – N.C. State in 1983, Villanova in ’85, to name two – helped turn the NCAA tournament into what it became.

You can go back in time and find several teams like Connecticut – teams that seemingly came out of nowhere to win it all. Used to be, though, that those teams at least had to beat great teams. Villanova in ’85 beat Georgetown and Patrick Ewing, who’s remembered as one of the best players of his generation.

N.C. State in 1983 beat Virginia and Ralph Sampson to make the Final Four, and then in the championship game defeated a Houston team with two future Hall of Famers – Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler.

And who, exactly, did Connecticut beat? A Kentucky team with five freshmen starters who for the vast majority of the season seemed to have all the chemistry of oil and water?

The Huskies defeated Florida, the No. 1 overall seed, in the national semifinals. As good as the Gators were, though, they’ll hardly be remembered nationally as some behemoth of a team that fell just short. No, they’ll fade away, too – just like the rest of this season.

And that’s also the problem with the NCAA tournament these days. The parity and unpredictability that once made it great – and still does, in some respects – has cheapened the experience, made it easily disposable.

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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