The NCAA has had an advertising campaign for several years promoting the idea that most college athletes really are students. They're nice commercials. You know them. They end with some version of the tag line "There are over 380,000 NC-double-A student-athletes and just about all of them will be going pro in something other than sports."
The ads usually have moody shots of athletes in action, then end up with the same athletes in work clothes.
This year's crop has injected some laughs. They're up to the high standards of the campaign. They're funny. But the very nature of the central joke in them highlights what a bogus idea it is that forms the foundation of the NCAA. I and others call it the Big Lie, that big-time college sports are purely amateur, mere extracurricular activities, and the athletes who play them are students just like any others on campus.
It's one thing to talk about the true fact that most NCAA athletes really are students doing something very like an extracurricular activity. But these new ads get their humor from the difference between big-time athletes and ordinary students.
One depicts a meeting between shoe-company executives and the "three-time All-American with mad smarts and sick leadership skills" for whom they've designed a shoe. The joke is it's a business shoe. It has the kid's grade-point average embossed on the back.
In another, two pre-teen boys emerge from a convenience store comparing their new NCAA trading cards. One brags about getting "K-Mac" -- we see the card is that of one Kevin McCarthy -- "three-time architect of the year!" The other kid tops that with "the Jay Campbell rookie card," with photos of Campbell playing lacrosse and looking through a microscope. The first kid's impressed: "That guy dominates in the lab!"
Obviously, what's so funny here is that it's absurd that kids would idolize an architect or a scientist the way they do ballplayers. It's nuts to think a shoe company would design a model for some high-achieving biz-school grad the way it would for a star basketball player headed to the pros.
In other words, while almost all of the 380,000 student-athletes in the NCAA will be going pro in something other than sports, the few who'll be going pro in sports, especially football and men's basketball, are wildly different from all those others. Absurdly so.
It's right and proper not to think of them as being similar to ordinary college students who are on campus to get an education and might or might not play a sport on the side. It must be, because imagining ordinary students as being similar to big-time athletes is silly enough to be the central joke in a series of funny commercials.
Thanks for illustrating that point so clearly, NCAA.
Sweet 16 preview, Part 1 [PERMALINK]
The first half of the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament is Thursday night, starting with Xavier vs. West Virginia in the West. Here's a quick look at Thursday's games.
(3) Xavier vs. (7) West Virginia, West region, 7:10 p.m. EDT
Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post and I are the only members of the Panel o' Experts who picked Xavier to go to the Final Four. They won't have to beat 2-seed Duke to get there, but they'll likely have to beat No. 1 UCLA.
But first they have to beat Duke's conquerors, West Virginia, a hot team featuring one of the hottest players in the country, Joe Alexander. And don't forget backup point guard Joe Mazzulla, who almost single-handedly destroyed the Blue Devils, inspiring Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski to say he looked like Jason Kidd.
But expecting that to happen again, to paraphrase Lou Piniella, would be like expecting to find a wallet Thursday because you found one Saturday.
With point guard Drew Lavender apparently back in full health, the Musketeers should be able to put pressure on the Mountaineers defense, which has a tendency to foul a lot at the best of times. That'll hurt them against Xavier, which is very good from the line. The wild card: On certain nights, West Virginia can beat anyone by shooting the 3.
(1) North Carolina vs. (4) Washington State, East region, 7:27 p.m. EDT
The Tar Heels, favorites to win this thing, are living up to their billing so far, abusing Mount St. Mary's 113-74 and Arkansas 108-77 in the first two rounds. You expect that kind of score in a 1-16 game, but not in a 1-9.
North Carolina's high-flying offense runs into the meat-grinding defense of Washington State in the Sweet 16. The Cougars clamp down on defense and shorten the game by slowing the tempo on offense. Their wins over Winthrop and Notre Dame have been just as lopsided as North Carolina's two victories, but the Cougars have allowed fewer points in the two games, 81, than the Tar Heels have scored in either of theirs. And it isn't close.
Already one of the top defensive teams in the country coming into the Tournament, the Cougars have stepped it up. Will it be enough? Well, great defense always beats great offense. And vice versa. It says here the answer's no, it won't be enough, but it should be a fascinating clash of styles.
Prediction: North Carolina
(1) UCLA vs. (12) Western Kentucky, West, second game
I had perennial power UConn knocking UCLA out in this round. Now it's up to the Hilltoppers if my bracket isn't going to take a massive hit, which should be pretty good motivation for them.
They'll need it. A win for Western Kentucky would be an upset for the ages for a team that's already contributed to the eternal highlight film with Ty Rogers' long buzzer-beating 3-pointer to win the first-round game against Drake. The Hilltoppers have the 3-point shooting that can keep them in a game with anyone.
UCLA might need a little motivation too. The talented Bruins sometimes mail it in early, then have to rally, as they did against Texas A&M in a second-round escape. With Western Kentucky's ability to shoot 3s, UCLA could find itself in a deep hole. I don't think that's going to happen, but the possibility makes this game worth checking out.
(2) Tennessee vs. (3) Louisville, East, second game
Tennessee is looking like a test of that old saw that winning close games is a good experience for a team. Teaches it how to win, that sort of thing. Tennessee definitely knows how to win close games, including a pair of close calls in the Tournament, against American, of all things, and, more reasonably, against Butler.
I don't buy the battle-tested theory. I think a team winning a lot of close games means it's not that much better than the teams it's been beating.
I'll take the teams that have been blowing their opponents sky high, thank you. Teams like North Carolina. And Louisville, which beat No. 14 Boise State by a gentleman's 18 in the first round, and then hung a 78-48 on a pretty good Oklahoma team in the second.
If the Volunteers can overcome Louisville's strong defense and their own malaise to make it a close game, they should have the advantage, not so much because of that battle-tested thing but because the Cardinals are lousy from the free-throw line. But I don't think that'll come into play.
My bracket had this game being played, and I had Tennessee winning it and going on to the Final Four. I'll keep that as the prediction of record just to be tidy, but I no longer think it's going to happen.
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I'm not a hypochondriac or anything, but I am one of those guys who start to feel like they have every symptom they hear about. I was a history major in college, but I wouldn't study the Middle Ages. I didn't want to walk around thinking I was coming down with bubonic plague.
This is usually a manageable condition, but after spending four solid days in front of NCAA Tournament TV broadcasts last weekend, I'm dealing with going over and over, straining, stopping and starting, going urgently, runny nose, dizziness, decrease in semen, sudden drop in blood pressure on standing, fainting, headache, flushing, upset stomach, abnormal vision, sudden decrease in hearing and vision, viral infections, sore throat, nosebleeds, coughing and erections lasting more than four hours.
But that last one might just be because I'm glad to see the Tournament.
Previous column: Stodgy CBS rocks
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