Watching College Basketball's Slump Into Anonymity

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This year's Final Four seems more like Best in Show at the Westminster. Such pedigree: Kentucky, Kansas, Ohio State and Louisville –– four of the very top dogs in the history of the sport. Well, it's a Meryl Streep kind of year, isn't it?

But if the Final Four might delight fans by giving them aristocracy in its teams, unfortunately the whole of college basketball is plagued by anonymity in its players, and external issues that have diminished the popularity of the game.

Good grief. This year, there has been more buzz about Mad Men than about March Madness.

Even the goofy students at Duke have stopped jamming little Cameron Indoor Stadium. And when the Dookies are losing interest in hoops, that's a clue that even Inspector Clouseau can't stumble past.

The dispiriting fact is that attendance for the college game keeps declining, both throughout the regular season and during the NCAA tournament.

So much of the problem is external: the competition. As the violent game of football grows more popular and its season extends longer into winter, all hoops are squeezed. College basketball doesn't seem like a season anymore. It's more like a spring break.

There's even talk now of not scheduling college basketball till after the New Year, running March Madness all through April. Seems like a good idea.

But because NCAA tournament games must be scheduled at the last minute, at stale, neutral sites that seem to be as far away as Bulgaria or Sri Lanka, it means that, like the Olympics, March Madness is more and more just a TV show.

However, unlike other competition-style TV programs like Dancing with the Stars, and unlike other sports, March Madness is at its greatest disadvantage now because you don't get to know the characters. The brightest stars leave for the NBA after a year –– "one and done" –– just when they're beginning to attract interest.

There's so little identity or continuity, and basketball is the most personality-driven team sport. It's especially revealing that the biggest fuss made about March Madness is about the brackets. And essentially, filling out a 68-team bracket has as much to do with sport as does buying a lottery ticket.

It's representative of the whole situation that, for the Final Four, Kentucky is the huge favorite — because the Wildcats are a transient team made up mostly of freshmen who'll be gone next year, off to the NBA.

Can we really say that the "C" in NCAA stands for "Collegiate," if virtually a whole team doesn't spend much time in college? Let us say that, more correctly, the NCAA is now the National CBS Athletic Association.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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