Packed Line: Is UVA style, success bad for college basketball?

uva-basketball newUVA basketball is bad for college basketball, ESPN.com columnist Myron Medcalf writes, because the Cavs lack style, substance be damned.

OK, the substance be damned line is my editorial phrasing grafted on. Medcalf doesn’t address the substance of what sports is ultimately about, winning, instead focusing on how Virginia’s formula for success – its stifling Pack-Line defense, its deliberate, efficient offensive attack, and overall slow, intense, grueling pace of play – turns off the casual fans.

Which is an interesting argument in a couple of respects. First, to what the casuals want out of basketball. Medcalf argues that casual fans come to college basketball in February to get ready for March Madness, and that those coming to the game now seeing Virginia win games in the 50s and 60s are going to be turned off from wanting to be part of March Madness.

OK, I’ll bite. Last year’s national-championship game, Kentucky and UConn, final score 60-54 UConn, attracted 21.2 million viewers, down 2.2 million from the total that watched Louisville beat Michigan 82-76 in 2013. That number itself was down from the most-watched title game of the past 15 years, the 2010 final between Duke and Butler, final score 61-59 Duke, which was watched by 23.9 million on TV.

But the casuals don’t like those kinds of games, even though they watch. Medcalf writes that the issue for college basketball powers-that-be is figuring out how to turn the casual fans who only tune in for March Madness and the walkup to the tournament.

Here I’ll put on the hat that I wear for my day job. (No, writing about college basketball doesn’t pay for the entirety of my lavish lifestyle. Sad, that.) My wife and I run a marketing company with dozens of clients across Virginia and the Mid-Atlantic, and our daily challenge is helping those clients get more people to buy whatever it is that they’re selling.

The siren song in business development is to focus more energy, time and resources – i.e. money – on the acquisition of new customers, the thinking being that, obviously, the only way you can get bigger is to get more people through the doors. The sirens of mythology lured sailors adrift at sea off-course and to their deaths, and they can similarly lure successful business enterprises from the course of what they did right to get to where they are.

Which is to say, college basketball is not the NBA, which features an up-and-down-the-court game where 100 points is an afterthought, and an All-Star Game can have a final score with the teams on either side of 160 without anybody batting an eye.

Defense is in short order in the NBA until … the playoffs. Yep, when a chance at a championship is on the line, things get tighter, and the teams that run up and down the court from October to early April either start doubling the post, hedging on screens and getting ball pressure, or they go home.

Think real quick: who are the four best teams in the NBA in the past 25 years? The Detroit Pistons, the Bad Boys of the late ’80s and early ‘90s, gave way to the Chicago Bulls of Michael Jordan in the early to mid ‘90s, and then the mantle was passed to the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs to alternate winning rings since.

Each had star power (Isaiah, Jordan, Shaq, Kobe, Duncan), but what else marked their success? The Bad Boys were defense and rebounding, the Bulls had Jordan, Scottie Pippen and later Dennis Rodman (a Bad Boys castoff) running a boring triangle offense and playing D, the Lakers had Shaq and Kobe running that same boring triangle and playing D, and the Spurs have the ultimate boring team with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli passing the ball and playing D.

And this has just been terrible for the NBA’s business model, all of these dull teams winning championships playing defense, boxing out, setting screens, running motion offenses, shooting angle bank shots in the post, to the point that the league just, what, doubled its national-TV contract take?

Quel horreur. Yeah, indeed, time to rip up the rulebook to encourage more running up and down the court, more isolation plays, more circus dunks like the guys in gorilla suits throw down during TV timeouts.

The fans are clearly not interested in the product as is.

Or, you know, they are. Certainly viewer numbers go up during the playoffs, peaking in the Finals, but that’s different from every other sport … how, exactly? NASCAR has it a bit backwards, with its Super Bowl being the first race of the year, the Daytona 500, and sure, the folks there would love to figure out how to translate the viewership from Daytona to the rest of the season, same as the NFL would love to get the 100 million-plus that tune in for the Super Bowl in February to be just as interested in Cleveland-Jacksonville in September.

You don’t see the NFL changing its product because it doesn’t get 100 million in the regular season. You actually did see NASCAR change its product for several years to try to get bigger, telling its drivers to tone down their in- and post-race antics, instituting rules changes that essentially make all the cars on the track as close to equal as possible, adding a playoff element to the end of the season that it’s had to tinker with every year since, losing a segment of its diehards in the process, and surprise, not gaining anything appreciable from the casuals who still tune in for the novelty of Daytona, then tune out to whatever else catches their interest.

Which gets us back to UVA basketball, and how bad it is for the business of college basketball. It might be bad for the business of ESPN, Medcalf’s employer, though even that is at question. The UVA-Duke primetime game on Jan. 31 drew the second-largest TV audience of the 2014-2015 regular season (3.49 million viewers), though sure, the ESPN types who live and breathe Duke will tell you it was all about the Blue Devils.

Virginia’s Feb. 2 Big Monday ESPN game at UNC drew 2.05 million viewers, outdrawing the 9 p.m. Kansas-Iowa State game that followed by nearly half a million viewers (interesting that fans left the high-scoring Big 12 teams in droves), and outpacing the 7 p.m. Big Monday games the week before and the week after by a similar margin.

(Cable ratings still aren’t available for the UVA-Pitt game from last night as of this writing.)

I’m sure the big rating for the UNC game was all about UNC. Same as how last night’s Big Monday game was little more than a two-hour infomercial for Wednesday’s ACC doubleheader with four Hall of Fame coaches doing battle at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., replete with graphics and in-game commentary from color guy Shane Battier that got interrupted only occasionally by the #2 team in the country playing a few feet away.

You’d think the higher-ups at the Worldwide Leader would have done anything they could not to remind people watching another boring UVA game that those four HOF’ers are two games back and more in the rearview of the team that was on its way to a 24th win in 25 games.

I do have to agree with Medcalf, though, in the final analysis, that UVA’s success is bad for college basketball, which seems deadset on officially becoming a minor league to the NBA, with the one-and-dones starring for a few months in their brief time in “college” on their way to the NBA draft.

The UVAs of the world, with players who play defense, rebound, pass the ball, who stay on campus for four years, get a little better every year on the court and off, go to class, work hard in the weight room, have no appeal to the casuals, because what UVA basketball is selling is that success comes as a result of hard work, sustained, dedication to detail, taking care of the little things.

Casual fans aren’t buying that. Might as well tell them that the only way to lose weight is to exercise more, eat less, no, there’s no magic pill, and sorry, but buying lottery tickets isn’t a retirement plan.

No worries. ESPN is trying to legislate UVA out of relevance with the change in the shot clock that it’s been relentlessly pushing of late anyway.

Nothing to see here.

Back to your regularly scheduled ill-advised fast break-leading-to-a-sloppy turnover, already in progress.

– Column by Chris Graham

uva basketball team of destiny
Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, by Jerry Ratcliffe and Chris Graham, is available for $25.


The book, with additional reporting by Zach Pereles, Scott Ratcliffe and Scott German, will take you from the aftermath of the stunning first-round loss to UMBC in 2018, and how coach Tony Bennett and his team used that loss as the source of strength, through to the ACC regular-season championship, the run to the Final Four, and the thrilling overtime win over Texas Tech to win the 2019 national title, the first in school history.
 
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