The best team won.
It was anticlimactic at the end, a yawner decided before halftime, but the Villanova Wildcats embodied the legitimacy of a college basketball tournament that funneled 68 schools into a bracket on March 11 and identified a worthy champion on April 2.
Along the way, there were some plot twists that will remain indelible March Madness snapshots – inconsolable Virginia players coping to fathom the reality of losing to a No. 16 seed, Kansas burying any of about 50 3-point shot attempts against Duke and, of course, 98-year old Sister Jean, exchanging fist bumps with Loyola-Chicago fans from her wheelchair – but when the ultimate victor is a team that won all six of its games by double-digit margins, it’s a successful tournament.
Congratulations to the selection committee, and to the broadcast network producers who coordinated a system that put every contest on national TV, and to the NCAA in general.
Amid the most crowded, chaotic intersection on the sports calendar, when hockey and baseball and soccer and the NFL’s never off off-season bump into each other, the NCAA gave fans three weeks of spectacular.
Now comes the aftermath with the elephant in the room. Now comes the heavy lifting.
On Feb. 23, Yahoo! Sports reported as many as 20 Division 1 basketball programs were involved in the most serious scandal since point-shaving corruption threatened college basketball’s existence during the early 1950s.
A process that found agents serving as middle men in a pay-to-play scheme has put the likes of Duke, Kentucky, Louisville, North Carolina and Arizona targets of an FBI investigation not limited to college-basketball’s thoroughbreds.
Here’s looking at you, Utah, and you, Xavier, and you, Clemson, and, yes, you, Washington.
There is never a best time for this kind of bombshell news to drop, but there is a worst time. The last week of February, as attention turns from the regular season to the conference tournaments, fulfills any definition of the worst time.
A report that the FBI had wiretapped conversations between Arizona coach Sean Miller and an agent regarding the recruitment of star freshman Deandre Ayton – Miller allegedly offered $100,000 for the Pac-12’s premier big man – put both Arizona and Miller in a particularly awkward situation.
Miller took a voluntary leave of absence for one game, waiting for the smoke to clear, and it sort of did. Upon declaring his innocence, he was back on the bench for the Wildcats’ postseason push.
Mark Emmert, the NCAA president, put his hands over his ears and did nothing. Too much, too soon. A contract with television-network partners took precedence over cloudy legal issues.
Let’s just play out the season, the NCAA seemed to say. Let’s ignore the noise and marvel in the beauty of a win-and-advance tournament that properly advanced Villanova to its 79-63 victory in the championship game.
The fairy-tale version of the story would conclude with “everybody lived happily ever after,” but to borrow from John Legend song, this ain’t no fairy tale.
A reporter didn’t wake up one morning and say to himself: “How can I make Sean Miller’s life miserable? It’s easy! I’ll conjure up some fake news!”
Somebody in the FBI leaked private information to a conduit he respected, with the clear intention of making that information public. Whether that’s right or wrong is a discussion for another day, in another forum.
I try to concentrate on sports, the games that I love, and I love college basketball in March. So does Mark Emmert.
He oversaw a fabulous tournament that concluded with four magic words: The best team won.
But college basketball is more than a mess. It’s a nightmare, complicated by shoe companies competing for the opportunity to endorse the NBA’s next superstar.
There’s an elephant in the room, an elephant defiantly resistant to Sister Jean’s mystical powers.