Though we're more than a week removed from it, I still think about how fun that 2013 title game was between Michigan and Louisville. It felt throwback yet contemporary. It felt like college basketball exhibiting what it still can be -- and often is -- yet did it on the most important stage, a needed reminder to those who think the sport is somehow rotting on a green vine.
But I don't shun this notion: The game would be much more embraceable and popular if we had style of play and officiating leniency in college hoops like what the 2013 final offered. It would be a boon, even if you didn't alter the one-and-done convention that's as responsible for the state of the sport's popularity as things like style of play, refereeing and an overwhelming litany of games being televised.
But the refereeing part (which actually reared its head in the title game, too, remember), that's actually a Catch-22 of sorts. Because consider the talent on that floor for the championship; it's not like that for 99 percent of college games. Then realize the irony of all this: The sport is actually in a scoring and cosmetic rut in part because not enough fouls are called. It seems antithetical to the cause, but it's true. Players have been coached to foul with their chests and be more aggressive with all parts of their body except their arms. This has led to physical play and inconsistent officiating.
This has led to stagnant styles and ugly basketball. It's perceived as a virus to the game, and that perception is accurate. College basketball is the only major American sport that was better and more popular 20 years ago than it is today.
Michigan coach John Beilein said the way college hoops can make a comeback for casual sports fans is to mimic what the NBA did when that league had a down period amid physical play and games finishing in the low 80-point range. Here's what AnnArbor.com passes along from Beilein, who spoke on Michigan radio Monday.
"I like the way the NBA is played," Beilein told WWLS 98.1-FM on Monday. "If you put your hand on a guy, it's a foul. We actually teach it, and it hurts us sometimes when we're not as physical as other teams." ...
Louisville coach Rick Pitino, like Beilein, advocated for rule tinkering at the Final Four -- saying the game has become far too physical. Whether it's too much bumping when a player is trying to make a cut, or too much body contact when another is trying to bring the ball up the floor. If fans want to watch appealing basketball, things are going to have to change -- at least a little bit.
"You've got to adjust," Beilein added. "The game has changed so much, and I don't think we should mess with it too much. But we always should be looking to make it much more like the game last Monday night."
Easy in conversation, very tough in practice.
You'll never get the college game to run like the NBA game because the college kids aren't NBA pros. Their talent isn't at that level. But I do think a lot of this comes down to officials and the necessary ugly that the sport will have to take on in the near-future. It may be a three- or four-year process, but the rules committee and John Adams, head of officials, is going to have to make a point of emphasis on physical play and upping foul calls. These meetings and alterations to the rulebook should be the first priority at offseason meetings later this spring.
Teams are going to have to relearn how to defend. Coaches will have to alter their teaching tactics in order to beautify the game and make it something fluid and free-flowing. It can never be perfect, but it can be less congested. College hoops can be pretty again, and what we saw in Atlanta doesn't have to be an aberration. But before we get to that point, it's going to take a lot of patience and even more whistles.