Benner/Sports and Final Four and Arts & Entertainment, etc. and NCAA and Opinion

BENNER: New Orleans a success, but Final Four leaves mixed emotions

April 7, 2012

On the upside, as someone who has loved the NCAA tournament going all the way back to Branch McCracken’s 1953 national-champion Hurryin’ Hoosiers—led by center Don Schlundt and a guard out of Terre Haute named Bobby Leonard—the evolution of the tournament into a national passion is simply extraordinary.

The Saturday of the national semifinals, especially before tipoff of the first game, is one of the best moments in sports. With the Final Four moving into football stadiums, including our own Lucas Oil Stadium, the spectacle of 70,000 fans in a venue to watch basketball is both mind- and eye-boggling.

Is it the best true basketball atmosphere? No, not even close. But then, Hinkle Fieldhouse isn’t big enough to host a Final Four, is it? Once sheer demand forced the NCAA to abandon traditional arenas, the notion of basketball for basketball’s sake was lost forever.

That said, the NCAA and its temporary seating supplier have worked ingeniously to engineer something that optimizes—as much as possible—a basketball setup in a football stadium. I was somewhat amazed that a building as gigantic as the Superdome was made to feel somewhat smaller. The playing floor did not seem to be lost in the vastness.

Overall, New Orleans did a commendable job hosting its first post-Katrina Final Four (its last was in 2003) and the NCAA should be applauded for its determination to bring the event back to the Crescent City as part of the ongoing revitalization effort.

That Indianapolis is guaranteed a spot in the cycle—and any other cycles that occur between now and 2033—due to its agreement with the NCAA is not something that should be taken for granted. An Indianapolis delegation, including yours truly, was in New Orleans not just to visit Bourbon Street (FYI, I limited my time in the French Quarter … really), but to observe and take notes.

The 2010 Final Four, buoyed by the presence of hometown Butler University and the cliff-hanging championship game between the Bulldogs and Duke University, was deemed by many to be the best ever on and off the floor. But standing pat has never been the Indy way. I’m reminded of the comment of former NCAA executive Tom Jernstedt: “Every time the other cities think they’ve caught up with Indianapolis, Indianapolis takes it to another level.”

We will see where Indy takes it in 2015. For example, think of dropping a “Final Four Village” onto Georgia Street. But a more immediate concern is the regional we’ll host at Lucas Oil Stadium next March. It’s likely we’ll get another regional in 2014 as prelude to the 2015 Final Four.

Now, to the downside. The last two NCAA champions have been the University of Connecticut and the University of Kentucky. UConn was about to go on probation when it was handed the trophy, and, unless its appeal with the NCAA is successful, it won’t be able to participate next year because it falls below academic benchmarks. Meanwhile, when Kentucky received the hardware Monday night, it likely passed through the hands of several NBA-bound freshmen whose time in Lexington is finished.

Perhaps those of us who are not exactly Kentucky fans should be happy that the likes of Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and even Indy’s own (Pike High School) Marques Teague won’t stay for four years, because the Wildcats might establish a UCLA-like dynasty if they did.

Still, in my admittedly idealistic, naïve little world, I continue to hope we have student-athletes competing who also are engaged in the pursuit of a meaningful college degree, and that their coaches and athletic departments are providing them with the requisite support to achieve that end.

In fairness to Kentucky, the so-called “one-and-dones” are also passing through other universities such as North Carolina and Duke. In fairness to the NCAA, the “one-and-dones” represent a tiny percentage of Division I basketball players. Likewise, the number of schools—like UConn—that are failing to hit academic benchmarks are in the distinct minority.

It’s just a guess, but I’d bet all those ’53 Hurryin’ Hoosiers earned their degrees. We’ve come a long way since then. Or maybe not.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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