MINNEAPOLIS -- Great season, huh? That's the kind of judgment one offers in the glow of a riveting championship game, such as the one played Monday night. It was the kind of game that puts the gloss on a sport's imperfections and lets everyone walk away feeling good. Duke vs. Arizona had a little of everything, from storylines to drama to superb play -- everything except a tied score in those final five minutes. One wonders how Duke would have responded had Arizona managed to pull even just once. But that's nitpicking. Give the Devils their due.
But give college basketball a second look, because the sport is undergoing significant change, with more to come. We're not talking only about the movement of players, a trend that renders speculation about next season irrelevant until the NBA draft. Who's going? Who's coming back? Duke's Jason Williams, Arizona's Richard Jefferson and St. John's Omar Cook are only some of the underclassmen facing significant decisions about their futures.
It was symbolic of the times that only two seniors walked onto the court for Monday's opening tap - Duke's Shane Battier and Arizona's Loren Woods.
Player movement has been shadowed recently by the coaching carousel that never seems to stop spinning. Now even successful coaches are being fired for, apparently, not being successful enough.
Kansas Coach Roy Williams called it "appalling." That's coachspeak. It also happens to be true. Williams offered a proposal that falls under the heading of putting things into perspective: Use the same standards of success to judge the universities themselves, he said. If a school is not in the top 10 academically, fire the president.
The sense of transience was buttressed further by a bewildering series of incidents that unfolded as the season progressed -- the Oklahoma State plane crash that claimed 10 members of the Cowboys family, the death of the wife of Arizona Coach Lute Olson, the passing of colorful coach and television commentator Al McGuire.
More ominous developments loom on the horizon. The NCAA wants to loosen its rules on amateurism and the NBA wants to start a development league for young players not interested in college.
There's a lot at stake. More than $4 billion is spent annually on intercollegiate sports, and that infamous $6 billion CBS contract to televise March Madness kicks in in 2003.
But the most alarming fiscal figure in college sports is this: Of the 976 institutions of higher learning in the United States, NCAA executive director Cedric Dempsey said only 48 generate more money than they spend on sports.
In the face of all that, the games become a salve, a refuge, a digression. But what a digression -- especially when they give us a kid like Battier.
Battier has been the antidote for much of what ails the college game. He has stood for excellence on and off the court, a rare combination. He played in 131 wins, tying the NCAA record established by Wayne Turner at Kentucky in 1998. The national player of the year and an academic All-American, Battier was eloquent and thoughtful and he set the standard for student-athletes in the future.
When Duke's victory over Arizona was complete, Battier was the player the Blue Devils engulfed, the man in the middle of the joyous scrum that swirled near center court. When Battier kissed the national championship trophy, he said his career was complete.
"All that's left for me," he said, "is to ride off into the sunset on a white horse." That's one way to say goodbye. There are others.
On that note, we'll end the way we started back in November -- with thoughts of Al McGuire. Back then, the immensely popular and irrepressible son of Brooklyn was gravely ill with a blood disorder. In January, he died.
One evening, McGuire was sleeping but woke up in the middle of the night and said, "Tell Wisconsin to take my name off the short list." He died the next day. That's making an exit.
Seashells and balloons to you, Coach.
See the rest of you in November.
Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service
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