Since 1939, the NCAA Basketball Championship, the brainchild of noted University of Kansas coach F.C. "Phog" Allen, the Division I tournament has increased in size and in interest. From a modest eight-team affair pitting Oregon (winner) against Ohio State in the Evanston, Ill., final, the field has inflated to a total of 68.
Known as "March Madness" since 1982, (popularized by sportscaster Brent Musburger), this extravaganza has become something of a rite to dedicated and occasional sporting fans alike, the "bracketology" craze enlisting even the president to fill out his own. It's a veritable cash cow for the selected schools and the television networks. Following the 2010 championship, the NCAA considered increasing the field to 96 or 128 teams.
Fortunately, sanity prevailed when it became obvious that there can be too much of a good thing, and the cutoff was made at 68. The current field provides sufficient drama for the fans and employment for former coaches and assorted ESPN lackeys to engage in attempting to outshout one another in cubing, squaring and dissecting the strengths and weaknesses of the teams and the brackets.
The product is entertaining, fast-paced, physical and emotional — but, it is not basketball as envisioned by its creator, James Naismith, or by legendary coaches such as Clair Bee, Phog Allen, Adolph Rupp, Hank Iba, Dean Smith and John Wooden. The athletes are strong, quick and superbly conditioned, but the game is more representative of a match between Roman gladiators than basketball as it was meant to be played.
As a former player (mediocre at best), but a better-than-average referee (began in 1953), I have standing to be critical of the sport. To accommodate the increased size and speed of today's players, the rules of the game have been bent near the breaking point — the addition of a third referee has done little to curb the escalation of this erstwhile game of finesse to collision sport akin to bumper cars or hockey.
Rules against offenses such as traveling, palming the ball and bumping the dribbler are seldom enforced by the officials — particularly when a player of star caliber is involved — and the three-second lane violation call has fallen to the endangered species list. Nonenforcement of the three-second rule has rendered the area in the paint as an arena worthy of Hulk Hogan and Steve Austin at best.
But there is no need to despair, nor should one walk away from a sport invented to reward teamwork, crisp passing, screening for shots and heads-up play. Basketball is still available and played the way its creator envisioned and the way it was taught by the venerated coaches noted above. It is found in high schools and universities and colleges — played by girls and women.
As I'm an admitted chauvinist and purist, there was a time I preferred watching paint dry to watching women's basketball. Factors bearing on this apathy were understandable — for years women's basketball was a boring contest, played by teams of six, divided into three offensive players and three for defense — never to invade the other's territory. College women's sports programs were few and far between — Mizzou fielded its first basketball team in the early 1970s.
In 1981, the NCAA succumbed to the pressure initiated by 1972's passage of Title IX of the education amendments, voting to establish women's Division I championships in a number of sports, including basketball. The sport has taken off like the proverbial rocket and, played under the same rules, is much more recognizable as "pure" basketball than as played by males. John Wooden, who coached the UCLA men to 10 NCAA titles, stated his preference for the style and tempo of women's play after his retirement.
There is much to appreciate in Division I women's basketball. First, they are actually student athletes who come to play and to graduate, unlike many of their male "one and done" counterparts, whose goal is showcasing their talents as a stepping stone to the pros. Women players are bright and articulate, eschew trash talking and seldom are involved in behavior to discredit themselves, their team or their university.
Those who did not watch this year's NCAA basketball championship series chose not to view the most competitive and well-played games played during "March Madness." The eventual winner, Texas A&M, beat No. 1 seed Baylor to advance to the final four. The team then defeated No. 1 seeded Stanford to reach the final against Notre Dame, which beat No. 1 seed and defending champion Connecticut to get there.
Finally, judging from their sparse attendance, those who profess to enjoy basketball might not realize we have talented and competitive women's basketball at Mizzou. Competing in the Big XII Conference, Missouri's women beat three ranked teams during the season and played most opponents down to the wire.
Missouri women's basketball is affordable and enjoyable — season tickets are available without pledging your car, house or firstborn for the privilege to purchase. Coach Robin Pingeton has an array of talented, hustling, student athletes. It would be a shame for them to play to empty seats. Buy a season ticket — I dare you.
J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.