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SportsMonday: The NCAA's Rotten Spoils

I was prepared to pump out another screed today, something along the lines of: "Maybe the kids from Cornell, the Ivy Leaguers who qualified for the Sweet 16 with a dominant victory over Wisconsin on Sunday will be the ones to speak up. Maybe they'll point out the ridiculousness of it all, of college basketball players putting on this amazing show and receiving so little in return... " blah, blah, blah.

Hell, the Big Red guys aren't even compensated with athletic scholarships (prohibited by the Ivy League) for all the revenue they help generate (the last many-year TV deal the NCAA signed with CBS to televise the NCAA men's basketball tournament was for more than $6 billion).

But even POTUS doesn't care about the raw deal at the heart of it all. His support for health care reform may not be popular, but Barack Obama's college basketball fanaticism certainly earns sizable voter approval. The president, whose bracket reportedly isn't doing very well, is on board with the huge percentage of basketball fans who just ride the wave of emotion created by the annual "amateur" basketball extravaganza.

An equitable distribution of the spoils be damned.

And why would you worry about that when there was the amazing finish to the Sunday afternoon Michigan State-Maryland game to celebrate? Maryland rallied from a nine-point deficit with two minutes remaining to lead twice in the last 30 seconds. During that time, senior guard Greivis Vasquez nailed not one but two driving shots to turn one-point deficits into one-point leads. But there was a little too much time left for the Terrapins after the second one.

And that meant that Draymond Green, a Spartan forward who had dropped in a cold-blooded jumper with a little less than 15 seconds left to give MSU a one-point advantage had time to dribble the ball up the floor and find teammate Korie Lucious near the top of the key. One problem was that for a moment the pass from Green to Lucious seemed destined to nail another of their teammates, whose name I couldn't make out, right in the head. But the guy ducked at the last second and the pass was completed.

Lucious, who was only in the game because star teammate Kalin Lucas had been sidelined by a heel injury, grabbed the ball with barely two seconds left on the clock but he knew he had time to pump fake a sizable defender who was going to at least alter an immediate shot attempt. Lucas then took one dribble, moved quickly to his left and launched the ultimate shot. While the ball was in the air, the red light around the backboard came on. If the ball went in, Michigan State would win. If not, Maryland would triumph. It went in.

Then there was Purdue's epic victory over Texas A&M as the day turned into evening. Purdue prevailed by two in overtime despite the absence of star front court man Robbie Hummel, who suffered a season-ending knee injury several weeks ago. The final seconds of this one featured powerful Boilermaker forward Chris Kramer seizing the moment. The two-time defending Big Ten defensive player of the year made the big play on offense this time, driving the lane with abandon and banking in the decisive layup over a much-taller player.

Unfortunately it will be impossible for me to stay on message all the way through to the end. In the aftermath of the Michigan State game in particular, you could hear and see the pundits straining to make it about something more than basketball. It couldn't just be that some young men had overcome adversity to win a thrilling game.

It had to have been a transformative experience - we had to have witnessed the moment when these players took a huge step away from childish things and started taking the final, critical steps toward manhood. So CBS play-by-play man Tim Brando went on-and-on about the great post-game sportsmanship shown by the Terrapins and the Spartans. Clearly even the losers had achieved a new level of maturity thanks to the majesty of this game.

And stories on the Web quickly focused on interactions between Michigan State coaches and players before (the Spartans had been an unhappy bunch at the Big Ten tournament the week before) and during Sunday's game. At halftime the Spartans had filed past the fallen Lucas, who was sitting on a table in the locker room. His teammates pledged to win the game for him. And there was the fact that even if the Maryland had pulled it out, there would have been a story of redemption ready to go. Vasquez was a noted hot-head during his first few years at Maryland but had harnessed his emotions this season and led his team to the cusp of glory.

This game had been a critical step in the transformation of formerly immature players into future successful adults, They had obviously been rewarded with something far more valuable than mere money.


Jim Coffman rounds up the sports weekend every Monday in this space. He welcomes your comments.

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Posted on Nov 26, 2021