As the second weekend of the NCAA tournament approaches, for all of the talk of the upsets and craziness, three of the four No. 1 seeds are still alive. The one pretender to the throne, top-ranked Gonzaga, is long gone into the dust, but the big names -- Kansas, Indiana, Louisville -- all with multiple Final Four appearances and multiple NCAA titles, are still in the game.
That the franchise schools remain does not alter the running and accurate narrative that there has been something different about this year's tournament, something more random and less electric, something less exciting and milky. The feeling exists because it is true: La Salle could play in the national championship game and it wouldn't necessarily be that surprising. To have giant killers, after all, there must be giants, and not just for one year, like the reigning champion Kentucky, which didn't even make the tournament to defend its title. Today's tournament is the first where any remaining team that wins would only count as a mild shock, if one at all.
The professional ranks sell the public the myth of parity and "competitive balance" -- through salary caps, luxury taxes and revenue sharing -- so the rich can curb salaries and keep more of their fortunes under the guise of providing a better product. The NCAA and its tournament fight the ebb of talent by marketing parity, broadcasting that the beauty of the tournament is that upsets are just 40 minutes away. The truth is something very different. Gonzaga being the top team in the country is as much an indictment as it is a cause for celebration. The same is true for Butler playing in consecutive national championship games. These teams deserve credit for fighting to the top, for surviving and advancing until the final Monday, but the larger phenomenon taking place is that parity is the result of lesser quality, lesser talent, and a lesser product.
If you like basketball and competition and pressure, the excitement is still there, even if Kevin Garnett and LeBron James never were, even if Carmelo Anthony was forced to come for a year, got his title barely breaking a sweat, and left -- the same as half of last year's Kentucky squad. The madness of the tournament is actually more about pure competition than about stars and superteams and history, and -- because the days of great players choosing college over the NBA is long over -- that has to be enough. Only the NBA's unethical (if not illegal) age limit keeps the top tier of college player in school for a year. The NCAA must now sell the excitement of parity, the office ritual of filling out the bracket and crumpling it up when Georgetown goes down, because the NCAA cannot sell talent, at least not for consecutive years, which makes Billy Donovan's 2006 and 2007 Florida teams that much more remarkable for returning to school to defend their championship.
The bargain is in the hope that excitement without historic excellence will indeed be enough. During the tournament, the broadcast networks show flashbacks -- of Christian Laettner's Blue Devils and Patrick Ewing's Hoyas and Larry Johnson's Runnin' Rebels -- and it seems inconceivable that level of talent could ever again be assembled on a basketball court for more than a single season. The replacement in this bargain is Florida Gulf Coast beating a No. 2 seed this year, George Mason going to the Final Four in another.
The pro game is a different, slightly more cynical animal, a labor-management street fight. The great NFL model, the 60-40 gate revenue split between teams combined with the franchise tag and salary cap, is not designed for competitive balance nearly as much as it is for restricting player movement and lowering salaries. A few teams dominate the NFL today just as a few teams dominated it before the salary cap. The difference is simply who gets to keep the money, and which teams are allowed to remain in business without their owners being particularly good businessmen.
The NBA has a had a salary cap for nearly 30 years and during it the Washington Wizards have gotten past the first round of the playoffs exactly once. Since 1980, the Los Angeles Lakers have been to the Finals 16 times, or, in other words, have represented the Western Conference an average of every other year. Such dominance is no different than in the quarter century previous, when from 1957 to 1981 the Celtics represented the East in the Finals 15 of 25 seasons.
College is rife with problems and corruption, but its talent drain is only partially of its own doing. In its current form, the hope for the college game is that competition without dominance is sufficient, that the mere sensation of a No. 12 seed defeating a No. 5 keeps the eyeballs on the television, even if that lower seed (Oregon, for example) isn't really a so different in talent from the team it has defeated. Should that sensation wane, and the public sense that the mediocre defeating the slightly less mediocre is not an upset at all but a clever marketing sleight of hand, change will have to follow and the NCAA will be forced be radical and increase its talent pool. The franchise NBA player is already lost to college. But paying excellent players who aren't quite top-tier NBA caliber to stay in school might be a start.