Only the most soft-headed Pollyanna would look at our world of sports and say that things just keep getting better. We’ve seen drug scandals, sex scandals, endless playoffs, relentless advertising, season tickets that sell for what a franchise used to cost. Sometimes you just have to be thankful when things that could have been worse aren’t. That thought came to mind with several developments in the past few days.
The NCAA basketball tournament will expand to 68 teams. It’s only a temporary reprieve, but the forces that floated the possibility of a 96-team tournament appear to have heeded the wisdom of the audience. Instead of widening the field by fifty percent, the NCAA and its broadcast partners – newly expanded to include cable so that all games will be available on television – will add three additional play-in games, so there will be one for each region.
The b-ball nabobs have not yet indicated who will play in the games. The hope here is that they will not be used to weed out the champions of the smallest conferences, forcing the #61-68 teams to fight their way into the main tournament draw. (I’d like to see a declaration that all conference champions will be exempt from the play-in.) A better use would be to match the last eight at-large teams, which could result in some interesting pairings in the battle for a twelfth seed. The networks would undoubtedly prefer that approach, increasing the audience for these pre-round games. However they choose to align the teams, at least they haven’t gone the rumored, bloated, 96-team route. It could have been worse.
The NFL draft goes primetime, and runs three days. It could have been a recipe for disaster, for the greatest evening of televised tedium since Geraldo found Al Capone’s vault. Thirty-two teams, forty-seven talking heads around a table (or so it seemed), few glamour players, an eye-glazing number of rep reports and forty-yard times, the annual return of Mel Kiper’s hair to Capistrano.
Fortunately, the teams were brisker than usual in making their selections, rarely using their full time on the clock. The draft was full of surprises – or should have been, given the performance of those who predict it in their mock drafts. As Jeff Briggs reported on RCS Sidelines, just two of the thirteen mock drafts he tracked had more than seven players in the correct slot – that’s seven out of thirty-two, remember, or twenty-two percent. After such a glorious display of expertise, why does anyone pay attention when these guys give out post-draft grades?
Tim Tebow goes to Denver, Jimmy Clausen to Carolina. Tebow was taken twenty-fifth, in the first round, to a team far from his rabid fan base in Florida. I would not want to have been a Jacksonville coach trying to guide his career amidst the Gator faithful. By taking Tebow in the first round, the Josh McDaniel/Brian Xanders team spared us a full day of “who’ll take Tim and when” stories before the second and third round commenced.
Clausen’s mock stock had risen dramatically in the weeks before the draft, somewhat to the surprise of those who watched Notre Dame play the last few years. That stock fell at housing-price speed, settling at a more reasonable level when he was chosen with the forty-eighth pick by Carolina. He may have lost a night’s sleep, but he’s landed in a place that should be ideal for him. Panthers fans have seen Jake Delhomme set new standards for NFL quarterbacking; that’s an easier tradition for Clausen to live up to than that of Theismann and Montana.
Oklahoma City evens the series with the Lakers. The young and restless Thunder got their first playoff win at home, and then ran the defending champions out of the building with a decisive twenty-one point victory. The electrifying Kevin Durant scored the last of his twenty-two points in the third quarter, by which time OKC led by twenty-two; Russell Westbrook knifed his way through the L.A. defense for fourteen of his eighteen points in the first half, creating open shots for Jeff Green and giving the Lakers something to think about besides Durant. Speed kills, even in the playoffs; with such young and deadly scorers getting valuable playoff experience, the team that was Seattle’s should be an entertaining crew for years to come.
There’s nothing more exciting in sports than watching a rising team finding its legs against an experienced foe. Things could definitely be worse: you could be a network executive pondering a league whose two most dynamic players are in Cleveland and Oklahoma City.