Monday night's national championship game between UCLA and Florida has an extraordinary burden placed upon it to ... well, not stink.
Now this doesn't make the game special, because you never want to invest three weeks of your life in something that's going to end up like an episode of Charmed. You want the big finish.
But barring a memorable evening's entertainment, this will end up being a tournament short on incandescent moments (no matter what the song at the end of the game might say) and a growing sense that the tournament itself is beginning to wear on folks.
|When college students in diapers aren't enough to get fans going, you might be in trouble. (AP)|
But just as God voted his displeasure Sunday night by sending a thunderstorm that damaged a downtown building and tornadoes that sent Indiana residents scurrying into state-sponsored cellars, the country seems less moved this year by the games and personalities than usual.
I mean, fewer people watched the selection show than usual, and when you can't get people to gamble money they can't afford, then you've got troubles there, Joaquin.
But the tilt toward severe defense (points are down), the lack of big-name future pros (the NBA Draft is expected to be one of the worst ever by NBA people who whisper their opinions), the army of the bracket-busted, the big names that crapped out early, and especially the realization by coaches and customers alike that the tournament is more a testament to good luck and bad shooting than a true measure of greatness ... it all conspired, like the weather in Indianapolis, to leave people wondering what the big deal is.
That seems crazy, of course, because this is one of SportAmerica's most productive cash cows, but the comfort of the NCAA Tournament was that it would leave a residue of greatness and great fun behind it, and well, this one ain't it, kids.
Now we have no empirical evidence to prove this point, and we have no intention to hire some marketing firm to poll people against their wills on why they watched Accordion Time With Jennifer Love Hewitt instead of the women's semis. Just trust us; we know these things.
But when you get a notorious Bolshevik like Jim Boeheim (just joshin', kids; he's as company as it gets) suggesting that the tournament be expanded, well, that rings bells over here by the cigarette machine.
Expansion, as we know from reading over the shoulder of the smart kid in class, is the sign that the tournament isn't doing what it always seemed to do -– reward the right folks for achievement. Yes, there are some teams that wouldn't get in on merit alone, but the tournament grandfathered some smaller leagues in and it was one of the enduring charms of the whole thing that every school (well, except Savannah State, maybe) had the illusion of inclusion.
But between Billy Packer and Jim Nantz in full nationally televised froth at committee chair Craig Littlepage about what was actually a pretty good performance by the selection committee (Air Force notwithstanding), the closing gap between the no-hopers at the 14-trough-16 end of the bracket and the top teams caused people to wonder two potentially disturbing things:
One, if there aren't more 14s through 16s (hello, Northwestern State) being ignored, who could scare the 1s, 2s and 3s (hello, Iowa).
And two, if asking for the tournament's perfect symmetry to be changed isn't a sign that the worker bees see a change in the sport that the 65-team master plan isn't serving. I mean, if a fiendish old neo-Trotskyite like Jim Boeheim is suggesting change, it typically means it is worth thinking about more than "We have no plans at this time to ..."
Now this might also be UCLA's success at reducing the game to Stanley Cup playoff scoring levels talking, but the truth is that this tournament has been close but not classic, and it is simply harder to get attention than it used to be. I mean, every week when a beloved character isn't plugged on The Sopranos, people complain, and that's a fairly high standard to meet.
If Monday night's game is jaw-drop-quality good, this being Short-Attention-Span America, nobody will remember the other 63, and everything will be fine, and George Mason will be remembered for its charm and not its desultory performance against Florida.
If not, though, it might be time to consider the tournament with an eye toward tweakage. Not right away, mind you -– this might just be one of those years when the tournament wasn't special for everyone, and those happen, and you want to see if this is a trend or just a momentary bummer.
But if this is the start of change in the air, then so be it. Maybe it starts with a little thing, but this is one of those times during the calendar when fans should say, "Well, that was worth the attention and investment," and this year didn't give off that vibe.
So maybe the NCAA could start small. Maybe Littlepage could come out of the committee room and onto the set next March 11 and say, "OK, here's the bracket. Now who's the TV guy looking for a big-time, full-on, comprehensive ass-kicking?"
I mean, I can't speak for America, but I think I'd watch that.
Ray Ratto is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.