March Madness and more

At the considerable risk of sounding like a broken record, here are some idle musings on the “madness” while waiting for it to pass. I’ll say this much for it. The stuff is well-named.

And it needs to be further admitted -- painful or otherwise -- that this bloody annual NCAA basketball business only gets more wildly popular every year and with the new Chief Jock in the White House leading the cheers the madness can only deepen. Still, there’s comfort in the notion that it’s not the first time popular opinion has been totally misguided.

Some dissent, if you please.

The tourney remains a monumental hypocrisy because of its unholy alliance with big bucks, big television, runaway recruiting abuses, and every other wretched excess to be found in the deeply flawed illusion of American College sport. Is that enough reason? Although one does find it gracious of the NCAA, the multi-billion dollar scam that pretends to govern college sport, to graciously serve as the official farm system of the National Basketball Association and, of course, the National Football League.

As this is written, the University of Connecticut carries New England’s colors into the third round of 16, in both men’s and women’s brackets. That’s quite an achievement for the once modest state school at Storrs which set about redefining itself on America’s collegiate playgrounds about 15 years ago and appears to have succeeded at least in commanding desired attention.

Pundits regard U Conn’s women’s team as the nation’s best. The ladies punctuated that point in the second round of the tourney by crushing amiable University of Vermont 104 to 65, a ludicrous margin that in the good old days would have been decried as a clear case of piling it on. One might have hoped that in their struggle for equal rights and stature the women might seek to avoid the outrages of the men. There is no evidence of that happening. But then schools like UVM are supposed to be delighted to serve as punching bags for hyped up, hugely endowed, rampaging, power-houses like U Conn. It’s always been that way for the men. The women are merely following suit.

Moreover, the atrocities on the men’s side were even more striking. In the opening round U Conn’s boys drew the University of Chattanooga, one of those minor conference winners the NCAA “graciously” invites to the tourney to provide top-seeded royalty with willing cannon fodder. But even by that nasty standard, this one was messy. U Conn 103 Chattanooga 47. A 56-point margin is totally uncalled for and thoroughly bush and any coach who tells you that such a crude insult to a hapless opponent is unavoidable is simply lying.

No doubt the lads were fired up by devotion to their $1.6 million a year head-coach, Jim Calhoun, who missed the game because of some brief and quickly corrected medical issues which were believed to be linked with the stress of it all. Pressure on the fellow has been high. Not everyone in the state, which is floating in the direction of bankruptcy, apparently agrees that Calhoun -- along with the women’s fabled Coach Geno who also gets paid $1.6 million -- should be Connecticut’s second highest paid state employees. There’s been some fuss about this, deeply offending Calhoun. But the tempest passed. Just in time for the tourney.

More difficult to edge around are some cold, hard stats that have nothing to do with how the kids perform on the basketball court. Nerds who oddly believe universities are places for more important learning than the subtle art of cheering for the varsity like a bunch of Pavlovian puppies have forced the NCAA to release the graduation rates of all 65 tourney teams. Ah ha! Of course, very few people who bet in the office pools or swell CBS’s ratings pay much attention. Not surprisingly your host is a proud member of the overwhelmed minority.

Some teams fared well in the postings. North Carolina, a team U Conn could face in the finals, has an 86 percent graduation rate. Wake Forest, Marquette and (surprise) Florida State have 100 percent rates. Perhaps not surprisingly, all three were swept from the tourney early on. As for U Conn, the rate for the men’s team is 33 percent, which is about as low as it gets. Sis boom Bah!

It could be worse. At least we don’t have to absorb a week’s tub-thumping in behalf of Boston College’s basketball hirelings who were swiftly eliminated with little distinction. On the other hand, much good can be said for the tourney’s quality of play, ranging from terrific to outstanding. It’s as good as it gets. Maybe the thing should also get credit for taking the nation’s mind off the endless economic crisis although if there’s a lighter mood sweeping the Republic at the moment, I’ve not sensed it.

Admittedly, I am no basketball savant and contemporary college sport interests me less. But Mike Wilbon of the Washington Post is an expert and in a savage critique of the NCAA’s willful feathering of the nests of the super-powers in this opus he writes, “An organization made up of institutions of higher learning ought not be so intellectually dishonest.” It’s nice to know there are people in this business who really know what they are talking about who are equally uneasy with this scene.

Whatever, there you have some dissent to chew on; although granted it doesn’t stack up against the overwhelming consensus that holds “March Madness” to be so near and dear. One feels like that worthy ancient who bellowed into the winds while the gods sneered. Nor is it merry being a stick in the mud. But I’m telling you, this thing is laden with deceit.

In beating back the Devils the other day in what was probably their finest regular season win of the 21st century, the Bruins roughed up Jersey’s glorious goalie, Martin Brodeur, which doesn’t happen often. As he smashes the loftiest records (most wins and most shutouts), the stampede is on to proclaim Brodeur the greatest net-minder of all time. “Easy,’ says I. Here’s how I rate the top seven of the post-war era, the game before WW II being rather too distant to factor.

Turk Broda. Bulwark of the post-war Leafs. He re-defined the position with help from the Bruins’ Frankie Brimsek and the Habs’ Bill Durnan.

Jacques Plante. A sheer revolutionary in net. But he had the greatest team of all time in front of him and was too much a grandstander which diminishes him a tad.

Patrick Roy. Had the classic goalie temperament to go with stunning skills but he could beat himself, now and again.

Glen Hall. If you asked this question of the NHL’s hall of fame membership I’d bet the ranch they’d pick the man insiders still call, ‘‘the Goolie!’’

Maestro Brodeur. Has benefited too much from modern amenities and soft opponents for my tastes. But he has at least another half dozen seasons left so his record-busting could become scary.

Ken Dryden. He won six cups in his eight seasons. No one ever played the position bigger or gave it such intellectual substance. May be Canada’s next Prime Minister.

Terry Sawchuck. He was to hockey what Ty Cobb was to baseball; fearless, enigmatic and full of fury. Case closed!

That was fun.

And lastly

With acceptable representations of Latin and Asian minorities it would be an unreasonable reach to try to tar the Red Sox with the “good old country white boys need only apply” label that sullied too much of their history. Their race record in recent times further testifies in their behalf.

Yet, the probability that there will not be a single African-American on their 25 man roster this season is a tad chilling when you consider that this July 28th marks the 50th anniversary of the Boston debut of Elijah “Pumpsie” Green.

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