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College basketball: Madness and gladness


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2000

It's not the expected. Duke figured to struggle this season, after half of Durham defected to the NBA, but Mike Krzyzewski keeps reminding us how magnificently he recruits and coaches. All the ACC is sucking Blue Devils exhaust.

Oh, about the league ... College basketball's historically best conference has fallen to fifth or sixth best, becoming more power-shallow than the Big Ten, SEC, Pac-10 and Big 12. Maybe even the Big East.

It's late February. Time even for distracted Floridians to get cooking in Dick Vitale's kitchen. Around here, it can be difficult to squeeze onto winter's sporting stage. Winter means that by sunup we dip into the high 40s.

Football gripped us through January, especially with Florida State winning a national championship and NFL franchises from Tampa Bay and Jacksonville making it to the Super Bowl doorstep.

We then got busy with Daytona auto racing and Senior PGA play. Baseball is springing to life across the peninsula, with D-Rays upswinging and the Yanks reigning. But we're a week from March. Madness on the way.

There's no better month.

I'm revved for hoops, if not the NBA. Maybe it's just me, but I have trouble finding pros who magnetize my interest. Skills can be dazzling, but something's missing. I check TV schedules but find no NBA show that straps me to a big, leather chair.

Seeing the NBA's best during All-Star Weekend wasn't a grabber. Vince Carter's dunkability is cosmic, but basketball's mega-millionaires are far more dedicated to entertaining each other than playing up to a comparatively threadbare public.

Maybe a massive uptick is coming, in May when NBA playoffs appear. I hear Shaq O'Neal is now making free throws. Still, whether it's Lakers or Trail Blazers or Spurs or Magic or Heat, I can't see myself finding much interest.

I have company. TV ratings for NBA games are down 27.8 percent on TNT and 18.6 on NBC. It's more difficult than ever to identify with the pros. For money's worth, the college guys are far superior. I'd sooner see Duke-Stanford play just once than watch Lakers-Blazers every night for a month.

Darrell Armstrong plays with college zeal. He alone can draw me to the Orlando Magic, but our state's most bountiful hoops show is up I-75 where the Florida Gators entertain.

Billy Donovan is a budding Krzyzewski. Florida's coach is a smashing recruiter and his floor skills grow by the week. Seeing today's 21-5 team in Gainesville, it's easy to imagine his Gators being even better.

Twice against Tennessee, they lost in overtime. Each time, Florida had a golden moment to seize, if there had been Duke-like leadership/savvy, but the Florida fellows are still learning how to take tough, tight games by the throat.

Mike Miller hints he may take a leap for the NBA after two UF seasons. Bad idea. He's 6 feet 8, gifted and runs the court with zeal. But he should stick around Gainesville, achieving dean's list grades in Consistency 201 and Clutch 302 before taking on Zo Mourning and Grant Hill.

Donovan's troupe has the look of Sweet 16. Anything less would be a disappointment. If the Gators develop a stud leader, a go-to clutch hero, they could elevate to the NCAA final eight or higher.

South Florida has a shot at Madness. It will take stretch-run splendor, but the possibilities are apparent with Seth Greenberg's gang. Twenty wins should do it. Much work still to be done.

If we're talking basketball bargains, put a red flag on USF. Plenty of good, cheap seats. For the price of an NBA hot dog and soda, hoops consumers get two hours with Greenberg guys who are never boring.

FSU is making less-sufficient headway, even amid ACC drop-offs. But the sum is far richer with Miami. Hurricanes play hard, flashy and especially strong on the road. Two or three more wins should get Leonard Hamilton's team into the NCAA party.

Conference tournaments are just ahead. Enhancing our appetites for NCAA Tournament selections. A year ago, the powers and pretenders were aiming for a Final Four in St. Petersburg. This time it will be Indianapolis.

Good for Duke and top-ranked Stanford, continuing to exhibit basketball excellence at two of the world's strongest academic institutions. Both could make it to sweetness in Indiana.

No team is as athletically endowed as Cincinnati, but the Bearcats were vulnerable when confronted with relentless defense and clutch shooting, like from Bill Cosby's favorites, the Temple Owls.

Still, my Final Four, unashamedly going with the chalk, is Stanford, Duke, Cincinnati and Arizona. Michigan State has a solid shot. Florida has a chance.

Unlike in college football, 64 schools will be granted a tournament go at winding up No. 1. To be decided by three weekends of compelling competition, not some fat-cat-mandated BCS.

America's best sports event.

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